Friday, December 31, 2010

Oddities on TV

I got an email at the beginning of November from Sean Francis at Leftfield Pictures about their new television show on the Discovery channel called Oddities. It's about a shop in Manhattan which sells, well, Wunderkammer things. Obscura Antiques and Oddities sells such things as bezoars, straitjackets, and wax medical models, and apparently this stuff is becoming increasingly hard to find. The owners spend a lot of time and energy traveling to look at things which often turn out to be nothing worth looking at.

I am assuming the show will track these journeys to find interesting stuff, and perhaps some of the odd customers the shop encounters. If you have television, it may well be worth a look.

You can read more about the new show at the Discovery page: you can see videos, tour the shop or even get on the show if you have something you want to sell them. It looks very cool.

Thanks, Sean! And sorry it took so long!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

A Plethora of Automata, but Lasting Forever

Nick Rayburn sent me a link to this video of a nicely done tapping hand:

It has beautifully-captured motion and a nice sense of sculpture to it. I watched it three times, and then, as always happens to me, I got distracted by all the other automata videos down the side of the page.

There are so many people doing automata now that every time I go to Youtube I find more. It didn't used to be this way; when I first started this blog I'd swear the video channels all seemed to show the same few. However, nowadays, more and more wonderful creations are blooming all the time. I'll try and feature a few now and then, although if you're like me you'll probably find them yourself by sheer compulsive watching.

Here's an example of a very complex one made by Thomas Kuntz:

Most of them are a little simpler than this one, which is remarkably theatrical (columns of fire!). Arthur Ganson, for example, makes his own gears and other mechanisms out of wire, and then puts together these complex creations that generate what seem like astonishingly simple motions in everyday objects, motions which aren't mechanical-looking at all -- which is why they're actually not simple. I've mentioned him before, but he's made many more beautiful things since then. You can find at least 25 different pieces of his on Youtube.

His pieces are remarkably lyrical, and although Mr. Ganson has a thoroughly Fine Art resume, his work avoids some of the pitfalls that contemporary art often falls into: the banality, the emphasis on a common understanding of mass culture, which taken as a whole -- suburbia, television, consumerism -- doesn't have much resonance for me.

He says, about the uber-creepy Machine With Abandoned Doll, above: "Stopping to view the ocean from Highway #1 on the coast of California just south of San Francisco, I found this doll lying in a trash pile by the side of the road. I picked it up and immediately visualized this machine. 'As above, so below.'- this recognition of the parallel nature of our spirit and body helps define the formal structure of the machine."

As you can see, he knows his artspeak, and can write what he needs to get recognized by the High Art community; but at the bottom of it all, anyone can understand his work, because he sticks to simple things that resonate with us at a deeper level than those banal parts of our culture -- even if his machines are anything but simple.

It makes me happy to see people thinking once again about the mechanical world. It seems to me there is a correlation between looking back at clockwork and other more fundamental mechanisms (as opposed to electronics-based mechanisms) and a more sustainable approach to the world, because it's a clear rejection of mass-produced planned obsolescence. If you've ever seen The Story of Stuff (below), you'll know that something like 80% of all the consumer goods we buy are in the landfill within 6 months, because they're simply designed to break. In a society like this, clockwork and steam -- and even the concepts of clockwork and steam -- have a certain satisfying durability which is often lacking in our day-to-day lives and stuff. Think of those many wonderful surviving automata from the 18th century, which still work: dancing, playing music, moving like they should all these hundreds of years later. Sure, they've needed tune-ups and the occasional rejuvenatory makeover, but they were really made to last, and they show it. That, in itself, has a resonance for those of us living with an endless supply of disposable stuff.

(beware, this is 20 minutes long, though very fascinating)

One of the things I thought a lot about on my hiatus was what is important to me. Much of what I find important is probably the same as most people: love, a good home, happy children, creativity, a job which makes me feel I'm doing something useful. But there are also things like conversation, wonder, discovery, intimacy, learning, community, nature, and aesthetic observation which, though they sound rather abstract, are things I need for true satisfaction in my life. A lot of people don't seem to need those things, or if they do, they don't realize it. For me, communicating some of these needs is part of what makes me write a blog; but I think there is an idea out there now, that the act of making art is a cerebral exercise, as divorced from the ideas above as we are from the realities of production. With Postmodernism, many people in the art world scoff at the naivete of belief in universal truths, which for me are no longer like those old ones in the Victorian novels -- Truth, Beauty, Virtue, and Hope -- but are embodied in things like the movements of birds, the feeling of holding a baby, the quality of water against your skin. Instead, with Postmodernism we have playfulness, multiculturalism (both good things), and fragmentation, which leaves us with a curious lack of certainty.

And that's an interesting thing, because when you try to paint certainty onto the contemporary world, you hit a mammoth fail. To be honest, I think it's part of what I don't like about some of the art I see now, is that feeling of amorphousness that comes with not being sure of your voice, not being certain what it is you're doing.

It's in the peripheral cultures that certainty seems to come a little more into focus, those ragtag groups like the Steampunk and Maker communities, where people know what they like and pursue it with happy abandon. The multitude of voices which make up this Postmodern society are finally finding their stride in the minglings of these subcultures, places where beauty and skill and the desire for something a little more permanent are considered good ideals.

And that's why I like seeing all this automata, from people who have contrived to straddle the space between the over-mixed blandness of the art world and the lively, vibrant certainty of subcultures. The interest in materials, the love of small pleasures, the geeky fascination with how things work: they work against the tendency of made things to end up in dumpsters, and especially they avoid that tendency for art to become saleable, showable detritus made by people who have been stuffed with unreadable theory, who don't, apparently, feel that vibrancy.

I have to say, it gives me hope.

Monday, December 13, 2010

3 Small Web Animation Experiences

My friend Gwyan sent me these today, and I wanted to share them. Silly, meaningful, and just plain interesting...

My favorite is this one, by Evelien Lohbeck:

Then there is this, uh... music video?? by a band called Sour.

Lastly, you could spend quite a few minutes exploring these super-simple but curiously arresting short... uh, thingies by Aron Sommer. Art pieces? Yes, I think.


Thursday, December 9, 2010

If Only I Had A Fourth-Dimensional Mirror

Since I've moved house, I've been looking through all my old clothes that have been stashed away for years. I'm one of those people who find really cool clothing and then when they look ridiculous I stash them away until they are reasonable to wear again. It's surprising how many clothes actually do work fifteen years later (as long as they're not bubble gum fashion statements).

One thing that has been striking me over and over recently is the shadow-me that I seem to live with. By this I mean, my younger self, which hangs around in these clothes and in photographs. A tall, slender girl with blonde hair who lacked the confidence to express her opinions. I pull out dresses with the 26 inch waist and think, who was that person? Why didn't she speak up? And I still feel her inside me somewhere, still anxious about things, still idealistic, and she's wondering "what the heck happened to me! I want my body back!" It's like being schizophrenic.

I think I blogged somewhere in Croatia about palimpsests, those places where the information from older times gets layered over newer information. Lately, I'm thinking that people, as creatures who live and grow through time, are really just living palimpsests. Our older selves are simply layered versions of our younger selves. Take a look, sometime, at an older person's face: you'll see every experience they ever had, etched into the lines there. If the person has had a bitter life, their face will show it; and people who live their lives well have a certain beauty, laid into their faces like a mosaic or like those poles with the layers and layers of posters stuck to them.

Have you ever seen or read Flatland (my favorite is the wonderful 1965 animated version, with members of Beyond the Fringe doing voices)? It's about some 2-dimensional people (squares, triangles, etc.) who meet a sphere as it passes through their space. The sphere, as it passes through, appears to grow and shrink as different parts of it are bisected by the 2-dimensional plane, and the denizens of that world think that it's only a circle which appears and disappears and fluxuates in size.

As you can see in the video above (which I found after writing most of this post), we are all multi-dimensional creatures, made huge with the vastness of time's dimension, yet seeing only the three-dimensional slice of ourselves in each moment. The younger me, the older me, the me-that-is-to-be, they are all only aspects of the wholeness of myself. So I really am only looking at a part of the whole when I wonder who that person is/was/will be.

What is the shape of that whole, really? I don't mean just in terms of our bodies moving through space; I mean, who are we? What drives us? How does that inform the multidimensional self?

Up to about twenty, we are growing so much that we can't keep up with our own changes, and as a result every time we meet ourselves we are totally different. We get used to this flux: it's all we've ever known, and we don't generally have the agency to influence the world, so we take it in stride.

However, by the twenties, then, are about being Finished -- about Being A Grownup. People in their late teens and twenties are busy reveling in doing all those things they've looked forward to doing when they became A Grownup: going out to clubs, eating whatever, drinking, staying up late, taking terrible care of their bodies: in other words, going where they want to when they want to -- and reading all those banned books. They smoke, they swear, they talk about exciting new things. They try stuff. They are busy devouring the world and showing everyone how they are Not A Kid.

In their thirties, people tend not to need to prove this point so much, and often settle down a bit, getting involved in their job or family life and generally feeling youthful but settled. Their bodies are still good, their friends are smarter, they are deepening intellectually. Life is good.

Then a weird thing happens in the forties and/or fifties. Suddenly their bodies are betraying them; weird physical anomalies appear as if overnight, literally -- one day they're not there, and the next day they are: weight gain, strange fallen bits, wrinkles and bags and puffy bits you never imagined on yourself, all materialize, one by one, in an avalanche of hellish change. By the time you're sixty or seventy, perhaps you're used to it. I don't know; I'm not there yet. However, it's clear that some people go down fighting all the way.

I used to look forward to getting crow's feet. I thought getting old wasn't such a bad thing, and looked forward to someday being one of those leathery old ladies full of cool stories (as opposed to the unmarked, unremarked face which was my youthful lot). Then one day, for reasons which aren't important but were temporary, I woke up and the space above my eyelids had fallen down over my eyes: I could feel my eyelashes holding them up, and when I looked in the mirror I almost screamed. My eyes had gone from the familiar crooked, normal-sized, expressive and not-ugly eyes to some horrid small and mean-looking ones, the eyes of a stranger. I'd swear it wasn't even me looking out of them.

In that moment, it suddenly occurred to me that this might be what my eyes might look like in old age. Suddenly I was a lot less keen. Where were my same eyes with the crow's feet? Would my eye-skin do this, simply sag over my eyes until I was drowned, lost, subsumed in someone else's face, getting up every morning and looking in the mirror and wondering where the me that I had looked at for years had gone? Was I doomed to look mean forever?

Luckily, the awful swelling passed, but it definitely shook me up.

I remember my 90-something-year-old great aunt -- the one who was married to the painter, who made amazing clothes out of curtains and wrote poetry and called you "Darling" in a wonderful deep voice -- I remember her telling my mom, "You're always sixteen inside, darling." She would flirt with young men and get away with it, because she was so dynamic. The young men always responded -- they were fascinated by her. She was as wrinkly and lacking in hair as the next old lady: but she carried herself with drama, wore interesting clothes, and was a marvelous conversationalist.

The thing is, I always aspired to be her. I thought I wanted to be that cool old lady when I was older. But I didn't realize how hard the journey might be -- to go on keeping hold of who you are when the outside of you changes so much. I'm already one of those people whose outsides and insides have never matched: I used to look in shop windows when I walked by, not because I was vain, but because I could never get used to the idea that that person was me. Initially, it was because I couldn't believe that I was fully-grown and had all the grownup bits; but later, it was more to do with not believing that the person with the blonde mane and the unfinished-looking face was really me. It simply didn't seem like an outward expression of who I was. And yet, as the years go by, you get used to that outer self and you come to see it as a favorite sweater, something comfortable that you wear every day and even dress up with accessories -- like clothes, for example (In my case, later, when I had a few more lines in my face, I dyed my hair red and became much more satisfied with the match between inner and outer selves).

Eventually, however, the sweater gets baggy -- and that's when you suddenly realize you're stuck wearing it even if you find you don't love it so much anymore.

I'm thinking more and more that what you have to do is stop thinking of it as if you are an unhappy consumer who can't buy a new sweater (although many people actually try to get the old one retailored); what you have to do is think of it -- all of it -- as a whole. It's not so much that the outer you has worn out, while the inner you is inside screaming to get out; rather, all of those incarnations of you -- the child, the nubile young thing, the virile strong young man, the parent, the middle aged person, whatever guises you have inhabited along the way -- all of those are actually still there. Literally. You just can't see them anymore.

Wikipedia informs me that although I was taught that "Time Is The Fourth Dimension," in most mathematical models there are many different spatial dimensions, and time is not a part of these dimensional spaces. However, there is a type of space (or spacetime) called Minkowski space: "In physics and mathematics, Minkowski space or Minkowski spacetime (named after the mathematician Hermann Minkowski) is the mathematical setting in which Einstein's theory of special relativity is most conveniently formulated. In this setting the three ordinary dimensions of space are combined with a single dimension of time to form a four-dimensional manifold for representing a spacetime.

"In theoretical physics, Minkowski space is often contrasted with Euclidean space. While a Euclidean space has only spacelike dimensions, a Minkowski space also has one timelike dimension."
Et voila! I can still talk about time like it's a fourth dimension. Mathematicians may scoff, but it's just damned easier this way, so I'll willfully stick to it for this post.

Hubble Captures View of
In some version of Minkowski spacetime, then, your tired old body might look like a Nebula photo from the Hubble telescope, or like the best palimpsest you could never imagine. You might find that all the joyous moments shine among the multitudinous wholeness like stars, or that each care that etched its line on your face was represented by a thousand tiny vacillations, like the delicate frills on a jellyfish. You might find that all your many travels make you into a great creature so tangled and enfolded in the Earth that the two have become inextricable. Which gives a new meaning to the "personal responsibility" part of ecological stewardship.

Looking at the women I know who have reached the crone age successfully, I think to myself "it is possible." It's possible to move through the baggy patches with grace, building a beautiful whole. The secret is to live with joy, and the wrinkles in your 3-D self will hopefully layer themselves over the droopy eyes until the palimpsest of happiness embeds itself in your polished old skin so your eyes can't look mean, especially when you look at them in all four dimensions and see who you were, where you went, who you became, and all the many layers and scars and travels and experiences in between, becoming something so vast, so world-encompassing and beautiful that you can't help but be proud.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

This Is a Blog Post About News Websites

I don't usually do this simple passing-on-of-the-link, but I had to share.

Someone just sent me this link to a non-article about science writing, and it makes me laugh. It's hard to explain why it's so funny, but if you read as many website science articles that sum up what someone else said about the science, you'll probably think it's funny too. Especially as the Guardian themselves are known to write articles almost exactly like this...

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Of Whales and Tourism and Ill Luck

Disclaimer: Not my whale, just an amazing photo

A few days ago a blue whale washed up on a beach near where I live. We went to see her, all 86 feet of her; she lay in the sand of a little cove, upside down, with the great pleats underneath exposed to the world. Nearby lay the unfinished foetus which had been killed when its mother hemorrhaged after being hit by a freighter. Scientists from the marine lab had taken her pelvis, and removed the foetus (I assume) as part of their measuring.

It was quite a stunning thing to behold. It looked almost unreal, like something made from plastic for a Hollywood movie. It was really hard to believe it was something which had been truly real and alive, swimming in the sea a few days or weeks before. The sand was soaked with whale-oil, and everyone who walked in it had to throw away their shoes afterwards, because the smell was literally impossible to remove. A local woman told me a blue whale had washed up fifty years ago and they had tried to move it with a giant lumber forklift; she said even twenty, twenty-five years ago the thing had still smelled. They'd been unable to ever completely remove it from the machinery.

Which makes sense; whale oil was one of the key original ingredients of Rust-Oleum protective anti-rust paint. If it takes 30 years to get the whale oil off a forklift, it must have been a mighty good anti-rust material. It is apparently a kind of liquid wax, and not a true oil at all (although the line between oil and wax is a very subtle one).

Whale oil is, of course, why most whales were killed in the seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries. Not only any old whale oil was useful but in particular sperm oil, from the head of the sperm whale, which contains spermaceti, "brilliant white crystals that are hard but oily to the touch, and are devoid of taste or smell, making it very useful as an ingredient in cosmetics, leatherworking, and lubricants." [wiki] Sperm whales also produce ambergris, a very special and mysterious substance which the whales secret in their stomachs to ease the passage of hard objects (like giant squid beaks):

"Ambergris has been mostly known for its use in creating perfume and fragrance much like musk. While perfumes can still be found with ambergris around the world, ...It was banned from use in many countries in the 1970s, including the United States, because its precursor originates from the sperm whale, which is an endangered species. However it has been legal since 2005 due to strict monitoring of distributors who ensure that only ambergris that has been naturally washed to shore is sold. Ancient Egyptians burned ambergris as incense ...The ancient Chinese called the substance 'dragon's spittle fragrance.' During the Black Death in Europe, people believed that carrying a ball of ambergris could help prevent them from getting the plague. This was because the fragrance covered the smell of the air which was believed to be the cause of plague ... some people consider it an aphrodisiac. During the Middle Ages, Europeans used ambergris as a medication for headaches, colds, epilepsy, and other ailments." [wiki]

The thing that struck me most was the feeling, looking at all the people who came out to see the whale, that nothing had changed: take away the jeans and sneakers, and you had an image straight out of an old engraving of the tourists going to see the giant beached sea beast. Compare these two images, if you will:

The lower one, of course, being my whale (thanks to Biblioddysey for the upper one).

There were some chunks of baleen (filtering teeth which the whale uses to catch krill) nearby, removed or broken out for I'm not sure what purpose. I took some pictures of them, once again impressed by how much of what had grown naturally seemed like something built, something incredibly engineered. The texture of the baleen was hard and resin-like, but ultimately fibrous, and the inner texture was sort of shredded into a hairy finish. The efficiency of this structure is extraordinary: the hard, slotted part lets the water out very quickly and the hairy inner part keeps in all the little food animals.

Whales are extraordinary creatures. Their sheer size is extraordinary, of course, but the way they have adapted, the incredible complexity of their biology -- the substances they produce, the structures of their bodies, even the way they interact, are all unique and difficult for us to really grasp, since they live in such a different environment from us. The mystique of whales is long-established, even when the tradition was to kill them if you could -- as you can see by any light reading of Moby Dick. Did you know, for example, that one newborn blue whale drinks one hundred gallons of milk a day, and by the time they are weaned weigh around twenty-three tons? Or that one blue whale can hear another's song across thousands of miles of ocean?

Sometimes, for whatever reason, they come up out of the sea to die, and we don't know why. People make extraordinary efforts to help whales who have beached themselves, sometimes in large groups. There are a number of engravings depicting the fascination people have with whales which have come up on the beach...

(Particularly, if you look closely, these people seem fascinated with the size of their penises).

Unfortunately, while there is a ban on whaling nowadays, many peoples don't go along with it. The biggest offenders (though there are several) in this controversy are the Japanese, who continue to whale for "science" in rather stunning numbers and whose whale meat seems to find its way into all kinds of lucrative places, under the noses of the regulatory bodies who try to keep track of these things.

When I was a little kid, I remember people making fun, not of tree-huggers, but of people who supposedly went around with signs saying "Save the Whales." At the time, it seemed that the ocean's vastness was inexhaustable, and most people rolled their eyes at the way those animal-loving people talked about whale songs and the beauty of the pods moving through the water. But now, in the present climate of loss and depletion, these stories become more meaningful. Anyone who has been out in a boat and seen whales up close will attest: they are beautiful. The fact that such isolated creatures continue to talk to one another over great distances is amazing. Within their very bodies, they produce magical substances -- and structures -- which vie with some of our highest technology.

And their sheer size and power is, of course, staggering.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Ursula LeGuin: The Conflict and The Plot

I've been finishing one novel and starting another, so I'm in the mode of thinking about fiction lately. I seem to be able to either write fiction or non-fiction, but not both at once. Not easily, anyway.

Below are some words of wisdom from Ursula K. LeGuin, words that make me feel much, much better, because although I write stories, I don't always write about conflict per se. Sometimes, to me, there are better things to think about, and when people tell me that to make a successful piece of fiction I need to have plot! I need to crank up the conflict! then some part of me deep inside says, "Oh, yeah?"-- and I just can't shut it up. Like the title of the book this quote comes from (Steering the Craft), I have an internal guidance system which takes me where I must go. Perhaps as a result, I do have trouble selling stories: the nice comments from genre editors I've gotten is that the story is too slow, or that not enough happens. From the occasional literary editors, what I've heard is that because the story contains speculative elements, they can't use it (though I'm much more likely to get form rejections from literary editors).

I don't mind rejections, and I'm actually pleased that I'm getting comments and personalized rejections nowadays. Believe me, it is so wonderful to be getting these nice letters now, after all the years of form rejections; however, reading these words below, especially from one of the writers I most admire, makes me want to go on trying anyway. And the words make me want to turn back against the tide of pressure I've been floating in, the one that urges plot! plot! plot! perhaps at the expense of other things: they make me want to think again about the actual words I'm using, the phrases, the intricate, tiny narratives in tiny situations that fascinate me.

I love wisdom; I love people who have gotten old enough to have this kind of perspective. I love people who are well-read and incredibly eloquent, talking about things that matter deeply to me. Steering the Craft has been a marvelous read, and these words ring, not only true, but resoundingly.

"I define story as a narrative of events (external or psychological) which moves through time or implies the passage of time, and which involves change.

"I define plot as a form of story which uses action as its mode usually in the form of conflict, and which closely and intricately connects one act to another, usually through a causal chain, ending in a climax.

"Climax is one kind of pleasure; plot is one kind of story. A strong, shapely plot is a pleasure in itself. It can be reused generation after generation. It provides an armature for narrative that beginning writers may find invaluable.

"But most serious modern fictions can’t be reduced to a plot, or retold without fatal loss except in their own words. The story is not in the plot but in the telling. It is the telling that moves.

"Modernist manuals of writing often conflate story with conflict. This reductionism reflects a culture that inflates aggression and competition while cultivating ignorance of other behavioral options. No narrative of any complexity can be built on or reduced to a single element. Conflict is one kind of behavior. There are others, equally important in any human life, such as relating, finding, losing, bearing, discovering, parting, changing.

"Change is the universal aspect of all these sources of story. Story is something moving, something happening, something or somebody changing.

"We don’t have to have the rigid structure of a plot to tell a story, but we do need a focus. What is it about? Who is it about? This focus, explicit or implicit, is the center to which all the events, characters, sayings, doings of the story originally or finally refer. It may be or may not be a simple or a single thing or person or idea. We may not be able to define it. If it’s a complex subject it probably can’t be expressed in any words at all except all the words of the story. But it is there.

"And a story equally needs what Jill Paton Walsh calls a trajectory — not necessarily an outline or synopsis to follow, but a movement to follow: the shape of a movement, whether it be straight ahead or roundabout or recurrent or eccentric, a movement which never ceases, from which no passage departs entirely or for long, and to which all passages contribute in some way. This trajectory is the shape of the story as a whole. It moves always to its end, and its end is implied in its beginning.

"Crowding and leaping have to do with the focus and the trajectory. Everything that is crowded in to enrich the story sensually, intellectually, emotionally, should be in focus — part of the central focus of the story. And every leap should be along the trajectory, following the shape and movement of the whole."

I'll leave you with that taste in your mouth, rather than even trying to reach that level of eloquence. Phew.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Atlas Obscura

I just wanted to take a brief moment to mention this fun new venture that one of the folks from Curious Expeditions has been working on. It's a map of many of the odd and curious things from across the world, created by the editors – and also, by people like you. It's really, really neat, full of amazing places already (and they've invited me to be a guest editor, hooray!). I think it's going to be a big hit, so please go on over there and add something if you know of a weird place you think no one else has been to (or at least, something that's not on the Atlas yet). They would love to hear about it!

More from me soon; I'm a little overwhelmed at the moment, but next month should be better (and on from there). I've got about six posts sitting waiting for editing, and simply haven't had time!

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Win a Kindle and Buy My Story Too

Okay, shameless hustle. I promise to keep it short.

Eric Reynolds over at Hadley Rille Books says,

"I've just started a big marketing campaign to sell 5000 books between now and December 31st for Hadley Rille's 5th birthday (Nov 29) and am asking people if they'll help me spread the word on-line. I'm going to give away a Kindle 3G, which people can register for at, and if they buy or pre-order a book (like Aether Age) then they get additional entry(ies)."

November 29th is also the release date of Aether Age: Helios, the anthology I'm in. Hadley Rille is offering a pre-order special for the anthology right now (with a discounted cover price for both the soft- and hardcover editions, and free shipping).

Anyway, FYI!

Back soon with a few notes on hoarding...

Update: Eric also tells me that "I also have a couple of logos for it that people can use and if they post those as their profile pic or use it on a blog, etc., then I'll enter them again [for the Kindle]."

Here they are:

Thursday, September 16, 2010

It's A Yawn, It's A Sneer

No, it's the Flehmen Response.

Have you ever wondered why your horse or your cat gives that "gurning" face after smelling something intensely? I did; I thought it was something in the smell that made my cat react that way, as if she didn't like it -- except she kept going back to it again. It seemed like she was a glutton for punishment.

Now I find it wasn't that at all: she was exhibiting the Flehmen Response, a way of smelling that does not involve the nose.

What it does involve is an organ inside the roof of the mouth called the vomeronasal organ, otherwise known as the Jacobson's organ. The "gurning" face (or, in the case of goats and horses, the weird lip-lifting) is actually a way of getting air to circulate inside the mouth so that the vomeronasal organ can pick up molecules of the scent in question. It helps the animal see what kind of scent it is, really, and gives them more information about the source of the scent.

Generally, the scents that cause this kind of interest are things that contain pheremones or other compounds that tell the animal about other animals, either of their own species or, in the case of cats, those of prey. Curiously, it is believed to be the basis of the Cheshire Cat from Alice in Wonderland.

"Flehming allows the animals to determine several factors, including the presence or absence of estrus, the physiological state of the animal, and how long ago the animal passed by. This particular response is recognizable, for example, in stallions when smelling the urine of a mare in heat." [wiki]

This is a small fact, something you can bring out in odd moments to impress your friends; but as an activity it rarely fails in comic charm. Here is a video of a pony with the Flehmen Response in action:

Lastly, I'm not certain the video below is a flehmen response (if so it's a very lively one), but it is pretty funny.

You can also type "Flehmen Response" into Google Images and see what you get: a veritable rogue's gallery of weird facial tics.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

If We Only Had Twelve Fingers

Standard Kilogram Mass, one of 40 made in 1884 which were exact copies of the international prototype kilogram kept at the Bureau International des Poids et Mesures in Sèvres, France

Sitting around tonight arguing with my friend Gwyan about the Metric System, I found myself embroiled in a very interesting discussion about the nature of measurement and the extent to which people will follow rationalism.

The thing is, despite the fact that it's based on our own ten fingers, I don't like the metric system. I don't like a system that requires decimal calculations and which won't easily divide by anything other than 5 or 2. It is not ultimately logical for people who make clothes out of four basic panels (and have to size those panels up and down), and in my opinion anything that requires an infinitely repeating decimal to represent a third of the measuring unit is crazy. It just doesn't make my life better. The system was made up by a bunch of rationalists who got carried away with creating a completely new system that people in different countries would accept -- for the sole reason that they wanted something new. It figures that it caught on -- only something this untidy and bizarre would.

Well, mostly. The British didn't accept the metric system for many, many years, despite the Victorian institution of universal education -- probably because the system had originated in France. But that's a whole 'nother story. Curiously, though, the idea originated with an Englishman, John Wilkins, first secretary of the Royal Society of London, in 1668. The idea didn't catch on, and the English went right on with their intricate monetary system and their 20-ounce pints.

But then "in 1670, Gabriel Mouton, a French abbot and scientist, proposed a decimal system of measurement based on the circumference of the Earth... His ideas attracted interest at the time, and were supported by both Jean Picard and Christiaan Huygens in 1673." [wiki]

Well, that explains a lot. In the days of Reason and Enlightenment, systems which tidied up numbers and arranged them in clean lines and shapes were all the rage. Metrics are a perfect example:

"1000 litres = 1 cubic metre ≈ 1 tonne of water; 1 litre = 1 cubic decimetre ≈ 1 kilogram of water; 1 millilitre = 1 cubic centimetre ≈ 1 gram of water; and 1 microlitre = 1 cubic millimetre ≈ 1 milligram of water."

This would appeal enormously to a culture of gleeful intellectualism, the same one that came up with Napier's Bones and calculus.

It was dear, rational, idealistic France who went for the wholehearted changeover, of course:

"The inconsistency problem was not one of different units but one of differing sized units. Instead of simply standardising the size of the existing units, the leaders of the French revolutionary Assemblée Constituante decided that a completely new system should be adopted. It was felt that no country would accept standardising on the units of another country, but that there would be less resistance if a completely new system made change compulsory for all countries." [wiki]

In other words, they threw out measurements that had been working for individual people for hundreds of years or more, because of an ideal. Not a bad thing, maybe, and in talking with Gwyan, I was hard-pressed to describe my aversion to base-10 systems of measurement. I don't have a problem with base-10 monetary systems; money is, after all, pretty much about numbers, and our numeric system is base-10, so it follows. It's pretty straightforward that any being with ten digits is going to have a base-10 number system. And the beauty of the metric system is that if the units you're working with start to need dividing, you can simply slide down into the next unit level and viola! You're working with whole numbers again. It's a different way of thinking: you're not working so much with pieces and parts, but rather with a sort of layered mesh of wholes, through which you can move as needed. Which is fine for distance or weight, but not so good for discreet objects like eggs or minutes.

And that 1/3 measure, that sticks in my throat. You can go on sliding downward in unit size forever and never get to the bottom of the number; it will always be an estimate, a rounding-up or -down. And it bothers me, as someone who used to work in the garment industry, that dividing things in fourths involves such an awkward number as 2.5, or even 25. Those are not friendly numbers (*see below); they don't show up in the kind of kitchen that has a cast-iron pot at the fire and herbs hanging from the ceiling. These numbers don't believe in us and our four-cornered world; so I don't believe in them, either (so there).

The madness of post-Revolutionary France bears me out on this. They redesigned everything to be about tens: the 10-hour clock (as opposed to 12-hour); their new calendar had 12 months but with 10-day weeks; and of course, money, length, weight, volume and so on. The breadth of it was staggering: they were redesigning the universe to fit itself to our hands -- our five-fingered, flower-like hands.

(Image by Sue Ford)

True, there is something beautiful and otherworldly about the number 5. It exists in nature, but it doesn't fit into everyday symmetry the way the simple triangle can. Drawing a pentagram accurately is a tricky proposition. We don't think in fives: when we count pennies, most people make groups of twos and threes. It is beyond and above the natural grooves of our minds, and this may be why the pentagram (and pentagon) has always had such magical significance**.

But really -- should we be redesigning our whole cultural definition of space and mass into fives? They may be beautiful, but they are absolutely not practical, at least not in any world that I inhabit.

(Image thanks to The Steampunk Home)

Interestingly, Gwyan pointed out that the metric system is more useful in bureaucracies, mass-production, and science, where the numbers need to be able to go very large or very small. This is a wonderful point, because I think what I object to about the conversion is that it is designed to benefit those industries -- not individual people, moving through their individual lives. This is precisely why the calendar is still divided into twelves, and why the 10-hour clock simply failed; why dozens and grosses are still used in bakeries and eggs in many places. People like to be able to divide time and goods many different ways, not simply into two possible factors, and fractions thereof. The Romans had a unit called an uncia, which is the basis of our words for "inch" and "ounce"; it was part of a fractional system based on twelfths.

Interestingly, there are several languages who use duodecimal number systems (otherwise known as base-12). I'm not referring to Elvish here (apparently it's one example); in Nigeria, there are several, as well as a few obscure Nepalese and Indian languages.

Another place, at least in the US, that is unlikely to change very soon is in the kitchen. Cups, ounces, and teaspoons were arrived at through usage, through what worked easily with the tools at hand.

I have to say, it's not that I dont like tens; they work just fine in a mathematical context -- for counting things, it's certainly a good idea to have your counting system match your number of fingers. It's more that for everyday use you sometimes simply can't beat the number twelve. Even those of you who write in saying you're fine with the metric system still use a 12-hour clock and a 12-month year; would you prefer it differently? And for those of you, who like me, simply like the number 12, there are "dozenal" societies in the US and the UK (they forsake the word duodecimal because it means ten plus two, which they feel is beside the point). Perhaps I'll join. After all, what a fabulous number: dividable by 2, 3, 4, and 6. Definitely a keeper.

*Note: when I say friendly numbers here, I am referring to a different property than that of the friendly numbers of number theory; nor are they amicable numbers or sociable numbers, some of which have been around since Pythagorean times.

**Pentacles, on the other hand, do not originally have an association with the number five. I didn't know that until the moment of this writing.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Doctor, Dissected

Lately I've been watching the new Doctor Who series one after the other on Netflix, in odd moments when nothing else will do. A long time ago, my friend in Scotland sent me some action figures from the second season, and I didn't know the first thing about them. My friend Gwyan, having grown up in the UK, is a big (old) Doctor Who fan, but I could never see the appeal, so I hadn't yet approached the new one. But I kept hearing about it, and I have to say when I was at Writers of the Future and got to know Sean Williams, an extraordinarily intelligent man and an avid Doctor fan (and a very nice person to boot), I began to reassess the preconceptions with which I had come to it when I was young.

My first attempt at the Doctor was as a twenty-something person, and there are a number of reasons why I never took to it.

First of all, and this is entirely childish and silly, the cheapness made me sort of slide off it without getting a grip, if that makes sense. I didn't know which episodes were good ones; the ones I watched seemed to be attached to ones I hadn't watched, and I couldn't get past the low-budget effects and the ridiculous voices and things that were supposed to be scary (or at least to be taken seriously). Perhaps I was someone who couldn't laugh at things enough; perhaps I didn't give it enough of my attention. Perhaps I was too young and conscientious when I tried it. In a weird way, this is probably also why I never became a smoker: the smell put me off and I just didn't have the stick-to-it-iveness to become addicted.

Secondly, when I did actually get a "good" episode, the girl companions in the show put me off. They were great girls, don't get me wrong: but they didn't do a lot, other than make mistakes or get rescued. I say this as someone who hasn't watched a lot of Doctor Who, but I have to say the same thing was true for me of the old Star Trek (which I have watched a lot of). I really wanted to like them - all my friends (mostly male) had this sort of connective tissue of geekiness about those two shows, but I just couldn't identify with any of the female roles, and it got in the way of my enjoyment.

(On a side note, I discovered Galaxy Quest a few years ago and really loved the way they played with this issue with Sigourney Weaver, the ultimate smart female role model, someone whose role in the tv-show-within-the-film is to repeat what the ship's computer says. It seemed to personify all that I disliked about the old Star Trek, and made me love the movie's writers).

However, I'm finding that I like the new Doctor. He seems willing to feel things, and his companions actually save his life and participate in the solutions, not just the problems; the effects manage to emulate the old show without being obviously cheap. They even emulate some of the way the old shows used sets and costumes that were laying around the lots -- I'm always a sucker for a mixture of science fiction and costume drama.

But along with this new interest is a discovery that I can't find any interesting overall analysis of the Doctor Who construct. I've found many analyses of individual episodes or specific incarnations of the Doctor, but people looking at the underlying cultural elements of the show as a whole seem a bit thin on the ground. Please - correct me if I'm wrong. And please take this next bit with a grain of salt.

It seems to me that some really brilliant person came up with a concept that would appeal to those intelligent, un-macho young men in that particular geeky stage between twelve and fifteen who hope to become someone dashing and useful someday. Think about it: an eccentric man who is a Time Lord (the name itself is terribly indicative of someone with power over interesting and important things like time and space), roaming the universe alone (appeals to loners) having adventures. He is always accompanied by an attractive young woman, who has been impressed by his acumen and persuaded to accompany him around the universe (she is also changed out before she can start to age). Many of the Doctors were thin (not heavily-built) men with unprepossessing features, and yet they were terribly competent and had excellent abilities; and usually they were able to defeat their enemy simply with their wits (and sometimes with little else). Does this not sound like the esprit d'escalier embodied in a character? How many of us geeks (and yes, I include myself here) wished when we were young that we could come up with that exact right thing to do or say at the moment when it was required - the vanquishing, or at least reducing, of the bully with our wit and debonair cunning, the chance to save the day in a way that made that attractive girl person notice us?

Most of the people I know who were really huge fans of the earlier incarnations of the Doctors from the 1960's and 70's are intellectual-leaning males. If my experience is anything to go by, it would explain a great deal of the show's appeal to these folks as young men. It was smartly written, and values words; it was intellectual rather than visceral (the early Doctors seem to approach events using their reason, not their feelings); it treated women as smart and even intensely interesting people but preferred them to be pretty and to need help; it was mainly concerned with gadgets and robots and creatures who wanted to either mindlessly kill or take over the world. There is something in geek nature, I think, which likes to imagine that the world is controllable, and the Doctor Who series embodied this preference for reason and logic overcoming chaos (interestingly, Star Trek had a completely different message, and that beloved creature of logic-loving geeks - Spock himself - was not infallible: he was subject to periodic bouts of chaotic thinking, because the show required emotion to be the winning quality. Kirk's character, of course, made sure non-geeks could like the show too, being all about manly emotion and impulsiveness).

With all this in mind, I have to say I very much appreciate the kind of writing that allows the new Doctors to be men who have the same sharp intellect as the old ones, the same quirky weirdness which appeals to intellectuals and geeks and young boys, and yet manages to have an extra layer of emotion written in underneath, that extra something which makes people like me who are sticklers for emotional motivation willing to watch, and go on watching. I find that although I still find the Dalek irritating (sorry, fans, I came to it too late), and don't particularly like the cybermen, the fact that the main characters are so believable and, as believable people, are responding with distress to the monsters, makes me willing to go along - and as a result, interestingly, I am more willing to go back and watch the old shows. And I do it with a more open mind, coming to it as historical documentation of the world-building, rather than wanting to laugh outright at creatures made of plastic bags and tin foil.

It means a lot to me to see that the world is changing in this way, allowing us grown-up girls to reclaim bits of what we never could access before. When smart and even-handed people are on the teams that write the new stories, the world changes. Like Title IX, which has changed innumerable girls' lives, the acceptance of girls (and non-heterosexuals too) into the Land of Geek - and the accommodation of their sensibilities - is a wonderful thing, something relatively new. I think this same approach could benefit a lot more of our popular pastimes (I'm not naming gaming, oh, no, not me). The fact that the girls in the new episodes are kickass, and that the Doctor is able to care about things in his heart and soul, and the attention to detail which comes with a larger budget, means that a door has been opened, and people like the younger me, girls or others with geeky romantic adventure leanings, can also get into the Tardis and fly away with the Doctor, and for that I am grateful. It's a new world, and I like it.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Summer In Winter

It's blackberry season.

Also peach season, and apricot season, and many other kinds of fruit I love beyond reason.

In the winter, we collect, freeze and dry mushrooms to eat when the mushroom season has passed, so we can enjoy those flavors even when they are barely available in the fancy supermarkets for $40 a pound. We got 20 pounds of morels this year, and innumerable black trumpets. But in the summer, it's fruit. Boxes of it, bags of it: we gorge, and are content.

However, like the mushrooms I'm always trying to save that fruit for the winter months, when the flavor of blackberries or peaches can give you a moment of summer in the midst of the cold. Most years I make preserves of one sort or another. I've made strawberry jam and olallieberry jam, apple and pear butter, canned olallieberries and canned pears... yum.

The problem is, I'm almost the only one who eats it, so it sits there, fruit from summer waiting to be eaten when the fresh fruit is gone - waiting and waiting. It makes me sad. We do eat the canned olallieberries over ice cream (extra yum!)... but this year I decided to forget jam and go alcoholic.

Too much jam.

I remember when I was a kid, my parents went through a phase of making what they called "civil war nectar:" fruit in a big glass jar with sugar and something else, which fermented and produced a small amount of alcohol, which they ate over ice cream or cake. I've tried many times to get a recipe for that, but only yesterday found one:

1 part brandy
1 part fruit
1 part sugar
Leave it in a covered jar for a week before using.
Every time you use it, replace what you've taken with equal parts sugar and whatever fruit is in season.
Refrigerate in between uses if you are not using for more than a few days.

The place I found the recipe says: "Great on ice cream, pound cake, and such, but it does get very sneaky strong."

In my journeys through the internet looking for this recipe, I came instead across what seems to be a different approach to the same thing. Rumtopf ("rum pot"), also known as "tutti frutti" (all fruits, and yes, apparently that's where the name comes from) is a very old way of preserving summer flavors into the winter, from a time when alcohol was one of the only ways of preserving fruit:

"A tutti-frutti is started at the beginning of the summer, with fruits added to the mixture as they come into season. The last addition is usually made in September at the end of peach season. The trick to a successful tutti-frutti with brandy or a rumtopf with rum is to use an eclectic mixture of summer fruits, creating a blend of flavors. After the last addition, the entire mixture is set aside to mellow and age for several months. Of course, you can begin sampling the tutti-frutti/rumtopf whenever you like, but in Germany, it is not sampled until December on the first evening of advent. After that, it is fully consumed throughout the Christmas holidays. The spirited fruit is served over ice cream, pound cake, bread pudding and many other desserts. The sweet, fruity liquid can be enjoyed as an after dinner liqueur or mixed into cocktails."
(Thanks to Theresa Loe)

You find a ceramic or glass jar, about a gallon in size, with a tight-fitting lid. If you don't have a lid, or if the lid doesn't fit tightly, you can supplement with plastic wrap and a rubber band. You can also put a dish inside to hold the fruit down under the alcohol.

"Strawberries, cherries, raspberries, peaches, apricots, pineapple, nectarines, red currents and plums all work well. Do not use watermelon or cantaloupe (too watery), blackberries (too seedy), bananas (too soft) or citrus (too acidic). Some people avoid dark fruits like blueberries because they will discolor the lighter fruits in the mixture..."

I actually did use blackberries, because I like their flavor, and some people do the same with blueberries. I have also heard you should not use apples or pears, because they don't have sufficient body and get all mushy. The other thing I found is that having a cylindrical jar works better with the holding-down dish, which unfortunately allows fruit to escape around the edges if you use a round jar like I have.

What thrills me about this dish is the wonderful fragrance, a summery smell that comes wafting out whenever I open the lid. I smell it, and I think about the layers of fruit inside, and how when Christmastime comes we'll appreciate that injection of lost sunshine into our lives. It's like a little pot of treasure in my pantry, waiting for me to add more anytime I get some good fruit. At some point, I will try the Civil War Nectar, but for the moment I'm looking forward to that first taste of the Rumtopf in December.

Now, the other thing I made this year, which turned out extraordinary, was Creme de Mûre, a key ingredient in one version of the French cocktail known as Kir. We learned to love this drink during the ten years our family owned an old mill in France, where we would go and stay on the river and eat French food and generally enjoy the beauty of Bourgogne (Burgundy), where the house was situated. Traditionally, kir is made with Creme de Cassis (blackcurrant), topped up with white wine from Bourgogne. It's drunk as an aperitif, before food or a snack.

"Originally called blanc-cassis, the drink is now named after Félix Kir (1876 - 1968), mayor of Dijon in Burgundy, who as a pioneer of the twinning movement in the aftermath of the Second World War popularized the drink by offering it at receptions to visiting delegations. Besides treating his international guests well, he was also promoting two vital economic products of the region." [wiki]

If the rumtopf has a wonderful scent, this one is simply godlike. I find the flavor is rich and redolent of that peculiarly spicy blackberry scent, the smell of English summers and of scratched hands, sunshine and delicious forage, stained lips and that cautious, arched straining one does to get hold of a good cluster that's just out of reach. There is nothing like the smell of good blackberries, and now by making it I've actually managed to capture that smell in a bottle. It, too, has to age for three months, so I'm really looking forward to this winter, more than any winter full of jam.

Recipe for Creme de Mûre:

500 grams of blackberries
500 ml eau de vie (I used vodka - 80 proof)
250 ml water
350 grams sugar

Crush the berries and put them in the alcohol for 24 hours (cover it well).
Then strain out the fruit and put the fruit in the water for 24 hours.
Strain again, putting the fruit in the compost or feeding to your chickens.
Add the sugar to the blackberry-water, and heat until just warm enough to dissolve the sugar.
Now mix the sugar/blackberry mixture with the alcohol. Filter it through three or four layers of cheesecloth (or a thin, open weave dishtowel -- too tightly woven and it will clog), and put in bottles.
You can drink it at this point (yum), but it's apparently better if you let it age.

When my children were little, we used to read a book called Frederick, by Leo Lionni, about a mouse-poet who didn't help collect seeds and things during the summer. When the other mice complained, he said he was collecting smells and colors. Then when winter came, he was able to warm them with his words, which brought back the sights and feelings of summer in the middle of winter. I always liked this book, because it's about the things a writer wants to capture, and about bringing bits of the soft season into times that are hard and cold.

These dishes remind me of Frederick, holding tight to that fragrance and color from the season when fruit was really and truly ripe and giving it back to us again when we need it most.

So enjoy! And may your winter be full of the poetry of fruit...

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Very Small Post About Tomato Blossoms

So I'm just not getting many tomatoes this year.

The bees come and hang out with the squash blossoms and the sunflowers, and pretty much ignore the tomatoes. The bumblebees like them, though the two poor bumblebees I see in there are working hard trying to cover all those blossoms.

So I went to look up tomato pollination, and I find there is a whole mythos about tomatoes being self-pollinating. Apparently, according to this site, "The wild progenitor of our domestic tomato, in its native Peru, was pollinated by a solitary bee that was specifically adapted to it. As tomatoes were carried to other areas, its pollinator did not go with it, and pollination was often lacking."

Looking around, I came across a wonderful Instructables which explained things further:

"Tomatoes, as well as other members of the Solanaceae require a special kind of pollination to achieve proper fruit set. This form of pollination is known as "buzz pollination". Buzz pollination is accomplished by Bumblebees (Bombus), by gripping the flower with their legs and vibrating their flight muscles; honeybees (Apis) are incapable of doing this. In small gardens, bumblebee populations can be insufficient to properly pollinate tomatoes and related plants. Here's how to buzz pollinate your plants to produce larger fruits."

The 10-second video and the one-step Instructable then goes on to demonstrate a perfect (and hilarious) way to pollinate your tomatoes, which I will allow you the pleasure of discovering. It made me laugh.

Back at the first site, they tell us "Greenhouse growers for many years employed humans with electric vibrators (one brand name: Electric Bee!) to accomplish pollination. Today these have been mostly replaced with cultured bumblebees who do it more efficiently and cheaply."

All of which explains why I saw the single bumblebee in my garden, going from flower to flower and making a strange "bzazz" noise as it climbed onto each one. Yay, bumblebees! Still, I think I'll follow the Instructables and see if it helps.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

More in the Way of Hands, Mechanical

Since I've been on the subject of waldos, and making things by hand, I might as well show a few of the myriad interesting images I've come across. The hand can be interpreted in so many ways.

First, an amazing clockwork hand manipulator, which I would love to have, even if it's really simply art for art's sake. However, imagine if this could read Jacquard cards (or complex cams) and thus make your hand move in specific ways. Gives a new meaning to the term "player piano" - or perhaps, "piano player." Which would it be?

And a YouTube video of how it works:

Shane Willis' cool Escher-inspired hands repairing each other.

Part of a school project where students had to build working hands out of popsicle sticks and strings as a study of engineering and physiognomy.

A Becker Lock Grip hand, modded by the writer of a blog on "Technical Below Elbow Amputee Issues." In fact, modded twice. Really a very nice hand to have if you need a prosthetic arm, because it is so moddable (and cool looking). An interesting discussion, too, of people's reactions to different prosthetics he's tried... And a neat video of him using it to chop tomatoes.

(Editor's note: Wolf Schweitzer, author of the Technical Below Elbow Amputee Issues blog, above, has written to tell me that I must include the beautiful Monestier-Lescoeur hand, made by a sculptor and automata maker who does very interesting work. He's right - check it out: you can see the video here)

Another school project, with instructions

Kroenen's Mechanical hand, a reproduction of the one in the movie Hellboy.

A cheap mechanical hand ($17) which I came across on BoingBoing

I wasn't able to get a copy of this amazing tattoo of a hand emerging from this person's flesh, but I encourage you to go look at it.

In the Waldo tradition, this person made an oversized wooden hand to fit on their arm

Lastly, Ambroise Pare's excellent rendering of a mechanical hand, made from the original but with metal parts inside. From a nice Timeline of Robotics website.

The picture at the top was in Google Images, but led to a site which proposed to scan my computer for viruses, and nothing more. So I snagged the image and got out of there...