Thursday, September 27, 2007

Odd picture collection

I am going off to another week-long writing conference, so am posting this collection of oddments from my files to help you keep your brains going while I'm gone. I have no idea where any of these came from anymore, but find them oddly intriguing. Bear with me until I get back (on the 7th)! Perhaps if you have any good ideas for captions...?

Elephants swimming

No idea whatever!

Steam carriage (note resemblance to the one in Golden Compass)

"Tubas of Doom", is what my daughter calls these; they are from Japan in the 1930s, that's all I can remember, and I never did find out what they really are.

Well, I know what this is, but I'm not saying.

Slave Pens from the American South; this is an amazing, shocking picture that I've been saving for something meaningful. Speaks volumes about things we don't talk about enough.

Daimler Steam Motorcycle

Crozier head

Train Galley

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

The Anti-Pragmatic Manifesto

- I will make things myself sometimes even if it ends up being more expensive and odd.
- I will not do the dishes until there is a full load.
- When inspiration strikes, I will write down the idea, regardless of where I am and how stupid and/or rude it makes me look.
- I will have breakfast for dinner sometimes.
- I will let the house go to hell while I read a great novel.
- I will have parties even if I can't afford it.
- I will be poor so I can squander time.
- I will buy balloons, flowers, or ice cream for no reason, with whatever change I have in my pocket.
- I will procrastinate, especially if it means that lightning has time to strike and make the end result more brilliant.
- I will bring home huge boxes from work so I can make forts with my children.
- I will drop everything when I'm sick (bugger everything else).
- I will do impractical things that make me happy, like keeping chickens and a garden in the city.
- I will always be late if it means not yelling at anyone.
- I will find any reason to dress up, just because I like to.
- I will continue using and teaching real-world skills, like making bread or sewing, even though they are outdated and unnecessary at the moment.
- I will not stop creating, even if no one ever buys my creations (in my case, writing).
- I will continue to make puns, even if it makes others groan.
- I will sing, because singing should be part of life, even if it's terrible (especially if it's terrible).
- And lastly, I will always, always, choose being silly over being cool, because silliness is much cooler in the long run, anyway.

That's all I can think of at the moment. Any suggestions?

Monday, September 24, 2007

Electricity: the Road to Health

One of my friends just went to an acupuncturist for a back complaint, and came home buzzing (so to speak) with the fact that the acupuncturist had used electricity in the needles that were attached to her. She said it felt strange, and rather unpleasant, and made her feel tense. But then, she said, the acupuncturist went away and left her there, and before long she became so relaxed that she fell asleep, despite the weird zipping sensation in her back.

Looking this up, I find there are two fields of thought on this method: one is that the electricity takes the place of hand-manipulating the needles, allowing constant stimulation without tiring the doctor or becoming less accurate. The other gets into a whole discussion about the energy flows which are such an important part of Chinese medicine, and which apparently can be measured now through the use of electricity, since they are clearly related (according to my admittedly limited sources).

This reminded me, suddenly, of something that had been in my grandfather's stuff when he died: a strange instrument which delivered electricity to your body via a thing that looked like a little purple florescent light. And a friend of my parents had another one, even weirder and more, sort of, industrial, with this odd 1930's bandaid-pink asthetic which reminded me, unaccountably, of old ladies with lace-up shoes and baggy stockings. That one had two metal phallic-shaped hand wands with wires going to the main box. When you held them and turned it on, the horrid crawling of electricity traveled down your arms. I didn't forget that feeling in a hurry.

Later, when I was living in Japan, the Sento (public bath) that we frequented, which I found out later was famous for being clean and modern, had an electric bath you could get into, with a mild current running through it. I stuck my arm in once, and shuddered, preferring the lemon bath or the refrigerated bath any day. They also had a steam room, a sauna (wet vs. dry), and a twin stream of warm water which fell, thick as fat ropes, inside a little booth, where you could stand and have their weight pound your shoulders. And of course, you had to scrub before you were allowed into any of those other things, and often wanted to scrub again afterwards... so when you got on your bike and rode home, several hours later, you could feel the hairs on your arms riffling in the breeze, as if three tons of dead skin had been sloughed away.

But I digress.

4th Century BCE platter decorated with a torpedo fish (electric ray)

In A.D. 46, the Roman physician Scribonius Largus said:

"Headache even if it is chronic and unbearable is taken away and remedied forever by a live black torpedo placed on the spot which is in pain, until the pain ceases. As soon as the numbness has been felt the remedy should be removed lest the ability to feel be taken from the part. Moreover several torpedoes of the same kind should be prepared because the cure, that is the torpor which is a sign of betterment, is sometimes effective only after two or three."

Black torpedos are a kind of electric fish. They have a 50 volt discharge and a peak power output of 1 kilowatt, and if you imagine pulling one from the sea, wet with saline solution, you can see touching one would be a low-resistance electrical connection. Just like electroshock or TENS (Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation) for pain -- both of which are still in use after 2000 years.

Several different people throughout history have discovered the efficacy of electricity in reducing the pain of toothache, beginning in the mid-1700's, when the discovery of the Leyden jar - a way of storing up static electricity - allowed shocks to be delivered in forceful amounts. After Luigi Galvani discovered that his unintentional battery made the muscles in frog's legs jump (believing himself that the electricity was inherent in/created by biological creatures), the belief in electricity as a life force was unstoppable. Not only toothache, but back pain and other ailments were felt to be improved by the administration of electricity; the craze became so intense that it was even promulgated that electricity could help the conditions of the poor (which might be true, but I suspect not in the way they were imagining). Electricity was life, the source of regeneration and animation.

In 1817, Mary Shelley used this belief to her advantage in the case of the unfortunate Victor Frankenstein, animating his philosophical monster with the latest research in Natural Philosophy:

" With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony, I collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet. It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs."

By Victorian times, electrotherapy were common in all the best spas. Electric baths or thrones, or smaller, more direct devices, were being used as "health cures" in places like Bath and Harrogate (for a wonderful example of a holdover of this fad, check out the movie Agatha, about the eleven days that Agatha Christie went missing in 1926). All sorts of electric devices were for sale, with wild claims to health-improvement (see this article on American Artifacts for a wonderful example).

San Francisco's wonderful, but lost, Sutro Baths

Scott's Electric Flesh Brush, 1880s: note the motto "The Germ of All Life is Electricity"

The turn of the twentieth century was a moment of great belief in the power of electricity, not only physically but philosophically. Henri Bergson's Elan Vital was a "hypothetical explanation for evolution and development of organisms, which Bergson linked closely with consciousness" [wiki], an extension of the Victorian idea of Vitalism, which is essentially the dressing up of a soul in science clothing. The trickle-down effect of people like Bergson, along with widespread electrification of cities, only served to further this fascination of the surging populace with electricity and its wonders. My parents have a bar of "Electric Soap", for example, which used to sit on the knick-knack shelf in our kitchen like some kind of odd brick. It looked like completely ordinary large scale bar-soap, similar to Lava Soap in its brick-ishness except white, and I used to wonder how it was electric; eventually my mother enlightened me, saying it was from a time when it was fashionable to be electric, whether or not you had anything even remotely to do with actual electricity. In a way this was my very first introduction to hyperbole; it had never occurred to me that anyone could name a thing as something it was not. It proved to me that the ways of grownups were indeed strange.

Even into the 1930's machines were still being created (like my parents' friends' machine) to promote health through electricity. It fit hand-in-glove with that same idealism, the desire to improve the lot of regular people, which inspired an interest in socialism, organic architecture, and personal health during the 1920s (Jack LaLanne, the fitness guru of the 1940s, 50s and 60s, said that attending a Bragg crusade in California in 1929 changed his life. Bragg advocated pure water, organic food, juicing raw fruits and vegetables, deep breathing, and exercise to extend one's life, an unusual philosophy in those days).

Curiously, as with the pure water, organic food, and exercise, we're now making discoveries that seem to uphold some of these claims. After a 50-year period of disbelief - where anyone advocating electricity as a cure-all was deemed a quack or a freak - some studies are discovering the depths to which our physical well-being is tied in with electricity. Synapses, for example, were long considered entirely chemical, but in the latter part of the 20th century electrical synapses were found to be abundant in the cerebral cortex; and current (har har) research has shown that electricity flows from the edges of a wound as soon as an incision is made - and not only that, but increasing the charge around a wound makes it actually heal faster.

I don't need to mention defibrillators to show how electricity can save lives. And then of course there's ECT, which is supposed to be a wonderful modern invention: electricity has been used for years to "heal" people's who are mentally ill, though it is still not understood what the mechanism is that makes it work. It does have its weak points, however. We are all familiar with stories like One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, or Frances, where a beautiful mind is lost through the misunderstanding of the Establishment (Ursula LeGuin does a really beautiful job of this in her short story Diary of a Rose, from The Compass Rose), so there is not much surprise when we find that recent studies show an abnormal blood flow in the cerebral cortex after ECT. And, well, we know what happens to you if you commit murder in some states; so in some instances, too much life force can be a little overwhelming. As with all medicines, a little is good for you: too much is simply poison.

In this vein, great deal of talk is going around right now about electromagnetic radiation, and the possibility that we are living with too many electrical devices. The theory is that our bodies, so sublimely configured to live with a constant universe of solar radiation, global magnetism, and other natural sources of electromagnetic or other radiation, are not used to alternating current, and certainly not used to the levels to which we expose ourselves nowadays; and so the levels we do experience change our cells in unforseen ways, and this can cause cancer. The "life force" is thrown off-course and goes berzerk, and here we are again, trying to figure out what all this means.

I'd be willing to bet that within a few years we'll all be carrying little hand-held EMR meters or some kind of device that calms and straightens the electrical forces within our bodies so that we do not have to worry anymore. Perhaps those of us who are so inclined will even take the time to ornament theirs, so that it looks like a Victorian version, with scrollwork and brass fittings.

Sigh. La plus ca change, la plus c'est la meme chose.

Interesting links:

An interesting, look at electricity and health, with great pictures.

The Bite of Pain, the history of electricity and pain management, from (I suspect) a dentist's viewpoint.

A fun bunch of fun writing by Sarah Bakewell, one article of which discusses some of the background to Mary Shelley's imaginings.

Sprog Blog...Reincarnated: Age 5

Elephant with palm tree, cactus, and sun (and man and hills, if you look closely)

"So if you do something really bad as a human, then you're reborn as, like, a dog. And then, if you do something bad as a dog you get reborn as a roly-poly. Or a squash plant. Or a toy... a toy... a toyota."

Whale and friends (and kelp)

(If I could be reincarnated as one of her animals, I would always do good things.)

Better behave yourself or you'll be reincarnated downwards...

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

The Song of the Passenger Pigeon

A mystery. My father told me a story about my grandmother, who grew up on a tiny island in the south end of Lake Erie: he said once, when she was very small, she was out in the fields with her father. She remembered this particularly because she wasn't often allowed out with him; it was a big deal.

So they were standing there, and the sky darkened, filled with birds. The birds stretched for as far as the eye could see and literally brought darkness into the day - for minutes upon minutes. She remembered asking her father what they were, and her father replying, "Passenger Pigeons."

This story fascinated me throughout my youth, because my own father then would explain to me that the last passenger pigeon, named Martha, died alone at the Cincinnati Zoo when my grandmother was seventeen.* The idea that the birds could go from that kind of crazy-populous to the lone bird dying while zookeepers stood and watched helplessly, just blew my mind. And something about my grandmother's story had a dreamlike quality: the two figures standing, holding hands, out in the field, while with a noise like a whirring, chattering storm, thousands and thousands of birds pass by.

It appealed to me, as it appealed to me that my grandmother grew up in a time without radios or cars, and then watched as first cars, then radios, then television and space travel, and finally, personal computers came to be. That plain old lady never ceased to stun me; in her I saw the most amazing kind of mortality, reflected as it was in the vast experience of age, and all the people left behind. What a life! And - how adaptable people are!

And yet, one of the reasons that the passenger pigeons did become extinct was because people didn't adapt, they didn't learn when to stop. They didn't look, or listen, or care. Here is a description by John James Audobon of a roosting-place, where the hunters waited to slaughter these graceful, gentle, slightly comical-looking birds:

"Many trees two feet in diameter, I observed, were broken off at no great distance from the ground; and the branches of many of the largest and tallest had given way, as if the forest had been swept by a tornado. Every thing proved to me that the number of birds resorting to this part of the forest must be immense beyond conception. As the period of their arrival approached, their foes anxiously prepared to receive them. Some were furnished with iron-pots containing sulfur, others with torches of pine-knots, many with poles, and the rest with guns. The sun was lost to our view, yet not a Pigeon had arrived. Every thing was ready, and all eyes were gazing on the clear sky, which appeared in glimpses amidst the tall trees. Suddenly there burst forth a general cry of "Here they come!" The noise which they made, though yet distant, reminded me of a hard gale at sea, passing through the rigging of a close-reefed vessel. As the birds arrived and passed over me, I felt a current of air that surprised me. Thousands were soon knocked down by the pole-men. The birds continued to pour in. The fires were lighted, and a magnificent, as well as wonderful and almost terrifying, sight presented itself. The Pigeons, arriving by thousands, alighted everywhere, one above another, until solid masses were formed on the branches all round. Here and there the perches gave way under the weight with a crash, and, falling to the ground, destroyed hundreds of the birds beneath, forcing down the dense groups with which every stick was loaded. It was a scene of uproar and confusion. I found it quite useless to speak, or even to shout to those persons who were nearest to me. Even the reports of the guns were seldom heard, and I was made aware of the firing only by seeing the shooters reloading.

"...The Pigeons were constantly coming, and it was past midnight before I perceived a decrease in the number of those that arrived. The uproar continued the whole night...Towards the approach of day, the noise in some measure subsided: long before objects were distinguishable, the Pigeons began to move off in a direction quite different from that in which they had arrived the evening before, and at sunrise all that were able to fly had disappeared. The howling of the wolves now reached our ears, and the foxes, lynxes, cougars, bears, raccoons, opossums and pole-cats were seen sneaking off, whilst eagles and hawks of different species, accompanied by a crowd of vultures, came to supplant them, and enjoy their share of the spoil.
It was then that the authors of all this devastation began their entry amongst the dead, the dying, and the mangled. The Pigeons were picked up and piled in heaps, until each had as many as he could possibly dispose of, when [hundreds of] hogs were let loose to feed on the remainder."

The birds were so abundant that another man describes this:

"In 1805 I saw schooners loaded in bulk with Pigeons caught up the Hudson river, coming in to the wharf at New York, when the birds sold for a cent a piece. I knew a man in Pennsylvania, who caught and killed upwards of 500 dozens in a clap-net in one day, sweeping sometimes twenty dozens or more at a single haul."

If one man in a day can catch and kill more than 6,000 birds, it is no longer hunting; it is a kind of inflation, mass ornicide. The Victorian Taxidermy site, to whom I owe many thanks for their fascinating and incredibly informative page on passenger pigeons, discusses some of the causes for the birds' extinction. Since they were known to double - or even quadruple - their numbers in a single season, it would take some doing to overcome that quantity of population. Not unreasonably, it's believed that a combination of factors caused their demise. For one thing, they needed vast quantities of old-growth forest to roost and eat in, which by 1900 was rapidly dwindling (imagine how much food they ate! That's a whole nother question). Another factor was the relentlessness of the slaughter. As the VT site says, "The pigeons were subjected to shooting on the widest and most devastating scale. They were never free from persecution at any time of the year. They were hunted in spring at the beginning of nesting which was most disastrous, where the fat squabs were always considered a delicacy, later young birds in summer were much sought after, and finally adults were taken at all times. The pigeon had no peace."

Lastly, and most curiously, there is a theory that the pigeons simply didn't do well in decreased numbers. They were used to a living environment where they didn't need to be cautious; their numerousness made them indestructible. Not only were the birds in lesser numbers just as easy to catch as they'd been in larger numbers, but in psychological terms, they didn't function well. It's possible they felt vulnerable, and simply gave up breeding: they were stressed, and their breeding-places were as unsafe as everywhere else.

Oddly, looking at the history and the statistics, I've found my grandmother couldn't have seen passenger pigeons flying over in that number. The last recorded kill of wild passenger pigeons was when she was two years old. They hadn't flown that thickly since before she was born.

So where did the story come from? Did a large flock of birds fly over and prompt her father to tell her about seeing passenger pigeons when he was young, causing some kind of false memory? Did her father incorrectly identify some other kind of numerous bird? Or did she in fact see the very last flight of the birds? One of the last recorded collections of birds was reported in Ohio, at the right time and not far from her island, though it seems very unlikely they would be as thick as she describes. But I will never know, for she died thirteen years ago at the age of ninety-seven, and I can't ask her. She was always a nature-lover, communing with birds and shore. My elder daughter bears her name.

*(We have incredibly long generations in my family, so don't be horrified; I promise I didn't have mine at age 60 or something. Having one's children at a venerable age seems to have been fashionable with my ancestors long before it became commonly popular. My grandfather was born in 1876, no less; just think of it as genetic seven-league boots.)

Friday, September 14, 2007

A Wonderful, Eccentric, Brilliant Man (and His Book)

My father first bought this book in England in the 1950s, when he traveled to the UK to research his family tree in Scotland. My father is a Scots-Canadian, raised in Detroit, and a cartoonist at heart. He knew of Rowland Emett from Punch, and this book caught his fancy.

As a child, I found the book stuck into the bookshelf next to things like The Electric Koolaid Acid Test and Lord of the Rings (original binding, since my dad was the kind of person who was reading that stuff when it was published), and someone's cast-off version of Fear of Flying. which I suspect neither of them had read. I would read Nellie and marvel, in that way kids do at the age where they believe everything: at the wonderful elevated railway, which caught my fancy:

along with all the other wild and amazing adventures. I tried for years to make a twin-funneled paddle boat out of branches and string, like they did, but I never won any races.

The book captures some essential thing about being provincial, and English, and loving trains, particularly the small locals, which in the early 1960s Dr. Richard Beeching eviscerated, cutting nearly all the little local lines (and going down in infamy for its effect on the British way of life). Albert Funnel and Frederick Firedoor, Nellie's driver and "guard-fireman-and-porter", become upset because nobody in Cloud Cuckoo Valley or Duckwallow Marsh appreciate them, and so they get a wonderful idea: to turn Nellie into a flying machine and go somewhere else. They touch down in New York, where the members of the Philharmonic use parts of Nellie for a concert; then they look for some tracks heading South.

"They took Nellie down to the tracks, but were most upset to find she wouldn't fit and while they were wondering what ever to do they were gently scooped up by the cowcatcher of the Elmer K. Pheffenfeifer, which was just pulling out for the Deep South."

As you can see, American trains are of an entirely different order than that of small local English ones:

In the Deep South, Nellie becomes a paddle-boat for awhile to help one captain win the Grand Torchlight Race, then heads West where they rescue a damsel in distress who turns out to be part of a movie set (with a cardboard train about to run her over), and end up in the Smoky Patch Mountains, helping the tired gold-miners to mechanize their mining and their entertainment (using Nellie, of course), earning their fortunes and bringing back a miner friend to England (which they get to by buying diving gear and following the undersea telegraph cable).

These divers are repairing the undersea telegraph cable with knitting needles. Note the bag of gold dust which they exchanged to Nellie's crew for diving gear, and the curtains inside the one man's helmet, which fascinated me as a child

The drawings are marvelous, spidery and full of little odd details, and completely fanciful, playing beautifully off the English preconceptions of America at the time.

So now I come to the part that thrills me. Just on the basis of this book, in the interests of this post, I went and looked Rowland Emett (sometimes called Roland Emett) on Wikipedia. What I saw there just blew me away: the man built all kinds of amazing machines, which showed in places like the 1951 Festival of Britain (for which he made a physical model of Nellie, among other wonderful machines) - and he designed the machines for the movie of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

His SS Pussywillow (a mind-boggling machine) was featured on Brass Goggles, which is appropriate: his mechanical creations would appeal, for good reason, to the Steampunk community. The man was a total eccentric, with a marvelous imagination, and I feel privileged to have known this little story of his all my life. I still think it might be the coolest thing he did.

And I have to wonder: did Mr. Emett see something like Beeching on the horizon? Did he hope, in that lost way we writers have, that by encouraging this little bit of wonder and love for the tiny locals, he might help to save them? I suspect even in the early 1950s there was talk of trying to make the train system more efficient. Anyone who loves trains, especially the ones that get stopped by bicycles at crossings, must be influenced by the lovely fancy of this book - must see that the loss of trains like these, that went to places like Starfish Point, could only be a loss to the world at large. And if a gentle influence could have saved them, it would have been this one, for clearly, Mr. Emett understood about wonder.

More links:
- Rowland Emett machines: photos
- All kinds of info about him, including a timeline of his works and life

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Vik Muniz: Thinking Artist

The Mona Lisa in peanut butter and jelly...well, jam, really

I just picked up a book I bought at an exhibition of Vik Munoz's work at PS-1 in Brooklyn back in February, during an ill-fated trip to NYC (I got appendicitis the second day, had to have surgery, and then stayed four extra days over my originally planned three - this during a heavy snowfall and the Jet Blue debacle). You can imagine, the trip being ill-fated and all, that I haven't really had a chance to look at this book much. But for the first time I actually read what Mr. Munoz had to say about his life and work, and it's really fascinating.

Mr. Munoz's work could be construed as gimmicky, if one stood back and only looked at pictures in books and online. But up close, in the scale that he works, they are not: instead, humor and attention to detail make for a surprisingly fun, and often very beautiful, effect. His ability to take disparate...well, stuff, and make it into images is amazing, as if he can actually see in a different way than the rest of us. Like he is doing jigsaws backwards, making the puzzle pieces form a picture rather than watching the picture emerge from the puzzle pieces.

Liz Taylor made out of diamonds: the artist had to work in the bank vault, with a guard standing by; he was not allowed to take them home.

A photographer by training, he works in odd materials: chocolate syrup, sugar, plastic toys, the dots from hole-punchers, junk, dust, and detritis from a Brazilian street after Carnivale - nearly always sticking to one material for each series. He then photographs the images he's made. When you see one of his shows you find yourself looking at very large-scale photographs (life size to the materials). The detail of it, and the "close-up, far-away" combination makes for an amazing, confusing, exhilarating experience. Funny, too, as in his Medusa Marinara, which I unfortunately couldn't find a picture of. And unfortunately, reproductions just don't convey the intensity of what I'm talking about. If you get a chance to see a show, do.

The artist and some others in front of the above image, made out of toy soldiers: you get a sense of the scale.

Here is what he says, in his book Reflex: A Vik Muniz Primer about that confusion of looking:

"My idea was to take a picture of something that represented something else, and I wanted the two readings to be incongruous with one another. I wanted to work with photography and drawing, but I was thinking about relief...If I were to draw a perfect likeness on the street, no matter how good the rendering was, I wouldn't get more than maybe fifteen dollars and a pat on the back for it. But if I were to draw the same person with molasses, and have a trail of ants walking on the picture, all of a sudden it would seem miraculous..."

He goes on to explain why having something glaring and awkward can really improve one's experience of art:

"In 1986, I paid a great sum of money to see Anthony Hopkins incarnate the role of King Lear. Five minutes of the performance was enough time for me to realize that I had wasted my money...his craft was so convincing that he disappeared entirely...I'd paid to see Anthony Hopkins, and all I got was a dying king! On the other hand, I once spent three dollars and a couple of bus tickets to an abandoned firehouse in Queens to watch an amateur production of Othello. The main role was to be played by a man of short stature with a beer belly. [He] worked full-time as a plumber, he was married with two children, and he rehearsed with the theatre group as a hobby on weekends. In the first moments of the play...[he] carried on with the full demeanor of the Moorish the performance developed, however, [he] could no longer hold on to the general as an alter ego and started to slip into his identity as a plumber again. Throughout the rest of the play, he kept alternating personas - plumber, general, plumber, general -indefinitely. So for three dollars, I got to see two tragedies...the bad actor provided a richer experience of theater itself."

So by playing with recognizable materials (not ordinarily thought of as "art materials"), and making us bounce back and forth between, for example, chocolate syrup and Freud, he can make the examination of pictures more playful and interesting.

A Rembrandt beggar in pins, nails, and paper clips

Mr. Muniz became well-known via the series he called Sugar children. In 1995, he exchanged an art piece for a travel package to the Caribbean - St. Kitts, to be exact. During his stay there, he befriended a group of children who would come down to the beach where he swam. One day, they invited him home to meet their parents: "In contrast to the fresh, sweet demeanor of the children, their parents seemed weary and bitter, the inevitable result of an unfair exchange: long, backbreaking hours of labor at the sugar-cane plantation" for a meager salary.

Back in New York, he kept looking at his pictures of the children and thinking of their inevitable, sad metamorphosis, and how the agent of that change, that "mysterious, poisonous potion [which] would transform those bright-eyed island children", was sugar. He quotes the Brazilian poet Ferreira Gullar: "It is with the bitter lives of bitter people that I sweeten my coffee on this beautiful morning in Ipanema."

So he copied the snapshots in sugar on black paper, and took pictures of them. As he finished each one, he put the sugar into a jar with the original snapshot on it, like a label. The pictures are so lovely, and so fascinating, they became the turning-point for his career as an artist - and copies of them hang, thanks to the artist, in the school that the actual children attended in St. Kitts.

As for his experience trying to photograph homeless children on the streets of Sao Paulo, I will leave you to read about that yourself. Suffice to say it was a much more dangerous and miserable version of the above story (imagine seven-year-old crack addicts), but ultimately became an exercise in momentary transcendence. It's a really interesting story, as are all his other stories. Highly recommended, both in book and in person, and definitely fun and odd enough to be a Wonder.

A hole punch of talent: still life a la Cezanne

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

The Wonder of the Golden Proportions

Ever hear of the Golden Mean? Neither had I, until I was supposed to teach a graphic design course, and started (you know me) to do research on what, exactly, I should be teaching. It's one thing to be able to design things, and quite another to have to teach it to others.

A lot of what I found, gestalt theory and the principles of visual weight, and so on, were really interesting; but the Golden Mean was what really caught my fancy.

(NB: Math following. Don't be scared, all will be clear [and un-mathlike] in the end, I promise. I hope)

The Golden Mean, also known as the Golden Ratio, was developed as a proportional measurement by the ancient Greeks, as a way of making the most pleasing artworks. It was felt to be semi-divine, in that it seemed to show up in Nature as well. The ratio, an irrational number, began as 1.6180339887... and continued onward, pretty much forever. It is found by working out the following algebraic equation:

Essentially, if you take a line that is 1 long, and go from there, you will find that the above equation will work out to that same irrational number, which, when used as a proportional device, allows you to produce varying lengths of lines that are smaller and larger. But I'm not going to explain how, because though I really, really love math, I don't do well with equations, which are difficult for me: at least, to express the near-mystical magic that shows up in numbers.

So: now you have a bunch of varying line lengths. So what?

Well, let's see: take one of these lines and make a square out of it (putting four of them at right angles to each other, remember? I sometimes blank on these little leaps of logic). Then, starting at the center of one side, measure to one corner and draw an arc downward:

Aha! Now we start to have something. If the length of the square is 1, then the length of the rectangle (shown as the Greek letter phi here) is, of course, 1.6180339887... well, you get the point: the Greeks were smart. We call this shape the Golden Rectangle, and you can find it everywhere in Greek and Renaissance art (and elsewhere! Stage height proportions, window shapes, chair backs, believe me, they're everywhere. They are quite pleasing to the eye).

(If you really want to know the equation looks like this:)
(but don't ask me to explain that part).

Golden rectangles in the proportions of the Parthenon

Okay, onwards. I know this is looking like a lot of math, but bear with me here. Now we come to this guy named Fibonacci, born c.1170, who is considered "one of the most talented mathematicians of the Middle Ages" [wiki]. This is the man responsible for the introduction of the Hindu-Arabic numeral system when all of Europe was doing math in Roman numerals (I strongly urge you to read his link, above: it's fascinating). He used what is now known as the Fibonacci sequence - actually a pre-6th-century Indian concept - as an example in his famous and apparently brilliant book about math, Liber Abaci, or Book of Calculation, which is why we have it now. In any case, the Fibonacci Sequence, as it is now known, leads to all kinds of interesting events.

Try this. Draw a square, measuring one unit across (make it a small unit, like a centimeter, or perhaps the distance between binder-paper lines - otherwise you will need big paper). Now draw another square exactly the same right up alongside it (so they are sharing a side). Now, say you take the line along the top of both squares and use that to draw a bigger square, which of course is two units on a side - right? Okay, now moving clockwise (or counter-clockwise, like the picture below) around this construction, draw another square along the side where the edge of the big square and one small square align. Keep going clockwise and keep drawing bigger and bigger squares. The length of each consecutive square should make a sequence, like this: 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89... (by now you've probably run out of paper). Viola! Your own personal Fibonacci sequence, right there in your own home! And...lookie there. It sure looks kind of it? Pretty close to a Golden Rectangle, isn't it?

Okay, okay, you say. That's kind of neat. But aren't we just wanking with numbers?

Well, perhaps. But check this out. You can draw an arc, starting with a point at the middle of the two first squares where they touch the third square. The arc goes from corner to corner of each square, so that the two squares together make a semicircle. Then, by expanding the arc and drawing one in each square, working around the structure, you can build a lovely spiral:

This Fibonacci spiral does not have the two original squares visible

This spiral is one that closely mimics the Golden Spiral, based on the Golden Mean, above. The main difference is that the Golden Mean goes in both directions, both up and down, whereas the Fibonacci spiral only goes upwards from 1 (though you could take it down if you were into math, I'm sure). Both are considered logarithmic spirals, which are found everywhere in nature. Jakob Bernouli, a mathematician from a great family of brilliant people, called the logarithmic spiral spira mirabilis, or "the Miraculous Spiral," so called because the size increases but its shape is unaltered with each successive curve. This kind of spiral shows up in shells, in hurricanes, in the shape of a cat's claw or a wave; galaxies and flowers all work with logarithmic spirals. The Fibonacci sequence can be found many places as well, such as in the ancestry patterns of bees, the branching of trees, the whorls of a sunflower and the fruitlets of a pineapple.

Technically, though, the Fibonacci spiral has a slight wobble; it is not perfect, so not really a proper logarithmic spiral.

Which brings me to something which I find absolutely wonderful: if you chart that wobble on a graph, it begins to look as if it is ocillating around something, some specific number. Guess which number?

You guessed it. Now tell me there's no mystery in numbers.

(For a nice, step by step, even better mathematical explanation of this, check out this site. It certainly got me going.)

Friday, September 7, 2007

Apotropaism and the Evil Eye

and traps of all kinds

Looking through the exhibition checklist for the show (see previous post) at the Corning Museum of Glass, I came across the term "apotropaic", referring to "objects such as amulets and talismans or other symbols intended to 'ward off evil' or 'avert or combat evil.'" [wiki] The term apotrope comes from the Greek meaning "to turn away", and seems to express itself a great deal in eye symbology.

Take, for example, Mediterranean eye beads, worn or hung in the home to avert the evil eye, which is an incredibly widespread belief, traditionally found all the way from Britain through Europe and Russia and on down into the Middle East and India. The evil eye is invited, either inadvertently or purposefully, by complimenting someone or looking enviously on something of theirs - or similarly, by the staring of strangers. The root of this evil is set in envy, and as a result vocal or obvious admiration of something is taboo in many cultures. Thus the tradition of indirect appreciation, and sayings such as Masha'Allah ("God has willed it"), or Keyn aynhoreh ("no evil eye"), to misdirect the effects of the admiration. Some people believe that the expression of admiration or envy will catch the attention of God(s), and inspire the deity to redress the balance by evening out the fortunes of the admirer and admiree, so to speak.

Eye beads are common throughout Greece, Turkey, Syria and other parts of the Middle East, and I have even seen them for sale in Venice. Traditionally they are blue, which is a color said to reflect the blueness of the evil eye; people with green eyes are suspiciously evil eye-like, and there is even some speculation that the blueness traditional to the eye-beads comes from foreigners with blue eyes, who bumble in and compliment everyone in a terribly inauspicious way. The symbol can be seen everywhere - on bracelets, pendants, doorways, keychains and even on airplanes and boats. Wikipedia even mentions eyes being painted on drinking vessels in ancient Greece to protect the drinkers (I wonder what from?).

The tradition of painting eyes on boats, which in the Mediterranean is directly correlated with the evil eye, as well as with the Eye of Horus - which is a symbol of protection and indestructibility - seems to be common all over the world. In most places, such as in Asia and the Norse traditions, the eye on the boat has more to do with seeing, with finding one's way safely. But it's still an eye, and it's still protection.

This idea of bad intentions or evil energy being thrown at or drawn to one is pretty much common throughout humanity. In parts of Africa and Indonesia, black magic and curses are very real and present. I sat next to a man on a bus in Java once who claimed he was a black magician, and who told me all about it. I didn't like him very much and was trying really hard not to have him touch my knee anymore, so I didn't listen as closely as I should have, and have cursed my high morals ever since, as I could have learned more than I did; but nontheless, I was surprised to find the darkness under the everyday life of what seemed, to a tourist like me at that time, to be one kind of simply Muslim culture.

A Javanese shadow puppet, with the traditional black-and-white decoration worked in

One thing I did remember him telling me was that much of the decoration you see in Java and Bali, of the alternating black and white squares, was about black magic and white magic being kept in balance. A warding, of a sort. There are many, many types of warding for bad influences - the eye beads, of course; and horseshoes, which despite folklore about "holding in luck" are held, in older folklore, to be about reversing evil influence (I imagine the evil swooshing around the curve of the horseshoe like a Nascar racer around a corner, and zooming away again). Fish are considered immune to the evil eye by Jews and others, possibly because they are so wet, and the evil eye's effects are often of a wasting, drying kind (and fish are always wet). There are special woods, of course, like rowan branches in British/Celtic tradition, as well as the tying of red string; red thread is also, in Jewish custom, a ward for babies against the evil eye (people do tend to admire babies a lot).

The mention of string brings me back to the Corning Exhibit. I was riveted by the description of "witch balls", which included this blurb: "The evil eye is not the only source of ambient negativity and ill will. “Witches,” for example, can include anyone who actively wishes misfortune or sickness on others, or who causes others to suffer. The witch ball is believed to be the ancestor of the Christmas tree ornament, which was originally meant to protect gifts from outsiders who might covet them. In the United States, witch balls were traditionally filled with colorful bits of paper and string to confuse and repel witches who might be lurking around the house."

This witch ball, an antique, is one of the decorative, bright types of witch balls which you can still find today all over the internet. This one reminds me, oddly enough, of a glass eye bead.

Another source speaks of how witch balls were used to cover the tops of milk jugs, creamers, and bowls, but didn't discuss why; I found myself thinking of the tales of magical beings being given offerings of milk, and malevalent ones liking to spoil it. Witches, for example, are widely-known to cause milk to curdle. Could the witch balls be a sort of charm against that, to begin with, and somehow expanding to mean protection for the whole household? In other literature, witch-balls are commonly described as simply colorful or reflective glass balls that were hung in windows or around the garden, to confuse and sometimes even imprison the malevalent presence which a witch may have sent toward your household. Strings are mentioned only rarely as being inserted, though there are ample examples, both new and old, of glass balls, often with glass threads running across the inside, which are described as "witch balls". Wikipedia describes an appalachian tradition whereby black hair could be balled up with beeswax "into a hard round pellet about the size of a marble and is used in curses. In Ozark folklore, a witch that wants to kill someone will take this hair ball and throw it at the intended victim; it is said that when someone in the Ozarks is killed by a witch's curse, this witch ball is found near the body."

Bhutanese spirit trap: see? They're everywhere

Then there are sprite traps (corruption of "spirit traps"), which are made from red thread woven or tied onto a branch (often rowan), sometimes with a bit of copper wire. The traps are placed in front of the front and back doors of a dwelling or other building. Once a spirit is caught, the threads are cut and placed inside a witch bottle (which appears to be a less-expensive form of witch ball), and the bottle is often buried under a doorstep or hearth or other place around the home. Back again to thread or string inside a glass object!

Another form of bad-feeling catcher: the Dream-catcher, which is traditionally hung above Ojibwe newborn's beds to catch everything evil but let everything good through

Other stories, particularly of witch bottles which have been dug up recently around England, show that many witch bottles were filled with actual human bits such as hair or fingernails, bent pins and urine. This was apparently a way to point it toward a witch who may have been doing harm. When someone was unable to pass water, or took sick, or died, you would know who the witch was.

This might explain why the witch balls/bottles, the ones I find especially fascinating, with the string and other stuff in them, are so rare. It's only on occasion that they are found, dug up or unearthed in some other way, and then I wouldn't wonder if they didn't often get thrown away, as I would guess the buried ones might be a bit creepy and dirty. In any case, my searches for images of the American kind of witch ball, with the bits of paper and string, have been mostly fruitless. I do wish I could find more pictures of them, as the image in my mind is strong, and I'd love to compare.

Witch bottle found under a house in England

As Brian Hoggard over at says, "How fearful of supernatural intrusion into your home would you have to be before you'd consider lifting your hearthstone, digging a hole and inserting a bottle filled with pins and urine?" Which brings up an interesting point. Even today, I know when I'm having extremely good fortune, I can't help wondering when it's going to end. It feels weird to boast about things - superstition kicks in and I'm compelled to knock on wood or make light of my fortune. I work hard at not congratulating myself on being happy, for the happier I get, the more I notice where I could be. "There but for the grace of God go I," becomes my mantra, other peoples' misfortune a persistent dark spot at the edge of my fortune.

This feeling that the bad things are out there, waiting to pounce, must have been very pronounced in the old days. I always think of the Salem witch trials, or Cromwellian England, or even, to a lesser degree, McCarthyism, as these moments when that feeling - the one that tells us this happiness is fleeting, that there is bad luck (or, if you prefer, bad intentions) lurking just beyond reach - has taken over an entire populace. They are horrible moments, periods of extreme unease when no one feels they can trust another person, when the winter of the soul sets in and no one is certain of anything anymore, least of all why. Some of my friends would have us believe that this moment, now, 2007, is one of those times: when getting in and out of the US is becoming more and more difficult and there is free license to look into all our private affairs for no reason at all; when people living next door to each other are encouraged to turn each other in.

That may be true; but I get through it by working, all the time, to try to generate some light in this darkness. Hanging onto the wonder, looking at minutae and seeing the joy and the life in it - and helping others to see and remember those joys - is one of the best ways I know to find our way. May you all find your paths without stumbling.

Some links:
- Curious Expeditions discusses some interesting bottles which may or may not ward off bad luck for the drinker (much as the Greek cups do), among a collection of other remarkable, though less magic-oriented, bottles.
- An excellent page on the history of the Ojibwe's use of dreamcatchers and the woman ethnologist who carefully and extensively studied them.
- An unusual, completely unopened witch bottle made of ceramic, with a face on it, in the BBC News
- Another witch bottle in the BBC News.
- One place to buy eye beads, if you're interested.