A blog about the arts, books, flora and fauna, vittles, and whatever comes to mind!

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Friday, January 28, 2011

Ophiuchus and Cetus, Too

An anatomical man showing which sign of the zodiac
corresponds to each part of the body.  15th century.
The Musée Condé, Chantilly, France.

Poor Pluto.  Unceremoniously demoted without even a farewell.  We tend to be possessive about our skies, and if you don’t fit the right definition, well, tough (kind of like some people’s racial, religious, and cultural biases).  I feel for Pluto as I’m going through a bit of an identity crisis myself.  Recently it has been announced publicly that I am no longer a Sagittarius, but am under the sign of Ophiuchus.  (This is pronounced "of-ee-yoo-kuhs".)

Actually, I had known about this constellation before.  In my teens I turned to astrology to find answers to questions that were troubling me.  Questions like:  Who am I?  What is my purpose in life?  Why do I either have a zit on my face or green vegetable matter in my teeth when approached by a cute boy?  I never found the answers in astrology, but fortunately a cute boy looked beyond the zits and greens and married me.  (He is a Southerner, which may explain his predilection for greens.)

The belief that there is a connection between the world around us and humans, and that our lives are influenced and affected by it is an ancient one.  Besides astrology, the world has looked for portents in stones, animals, and a variety of things and places.  Even physiognomy, the study of facial features, was once a respected science.  The search for omens certainly pertained to the skies, and it must've been a wonder to ancient humans to look up and try and figure out what was going on up there, especially as they noticed things moved.

16th century woodcut of the signs of the zodiac.

Astrology and astronomy came from the same study.  Astrology was the interpretation of celestial objects, their movements, and phenomena.  Astronomy was at one time the attempt to predict celestial events.  Astronomy is now a full-fledged science, while astrology is at best a pseudo-science.  However, many still believe in astrology, but only when it's done by a skilled and knowledgeable interpreter.

Astrology was used in ancient times to seek the fate of important matters of state, or of rulers.  The ancient Greek astrologer and astronomer Ptolemy laid the basis of the Western astrological tradition, and the planets, houses, and signs of the zodiac from his works have changed little today.  It wasn't until Alexander the Great conquered Egypt that the Hellenic influence changed Alexandrian astrology, and the use of astrology to plot personal horoscopes began.  Arab astrologers took it up and revived the learning of the ancient Greeks.  The Arabs greatly added to the nascent field of astronomy, naming many of the major stars in the process.

Scenographia Systematis Mvndani Ptolemaici
The Ptolemaic system depicted by Andreas Cellarius, circa 1660.

In the Middle Ages astrologers were called "mathematici".  A "mathematicus" denoted a person proficient in astrology, astronomy, and mathematics.  The practice of medicine was also dependent on astrology, so early physicians learned it as well.

God the Geometer, circa 1250
from The Frontispiece of Bible Moralisee
Codex Vindobonensis 2554 in the
Österreichische Nationalbibliothek.

During the Renaissance, many individuals who we now credit with refuting (refudiating?) astrology were astrologers themselves, such as Galileo Galilei, Tycho Brahe, and Johannes Kepler.  However, most medieval and Renaissance astrologers practiced palmistry, using astrology as back-up for their findings. Kepler famously referred to astronomy as the wise mother and astrology the foolish daughter, and said that the existence of the daughter was necessary to the life of the mother.  It was the interest in astrology that fueled the study of astronomy.

Ophiuchus, whose name in Greek means "serpent-bearer", was one of the 48 constellations listed by Ptolemy, in the 2nd century.  It's earliest mention, however, is in Aratus, who was referring to the lost catalog of Eudoxus of Cnidus from the 4th century BCE.  In antiquity, Ophiuchus and some of its fixed stars were used by astrologers as "extra-zodiacal" indicators, meaning significant celestial phenomena that was outside of the twelve signs proper.

Illustration by Kepler from his book
De Stella Nova in Pede Serpentarii
("On the new star in Ophiuchu's foot")
"Kepler's Supernova" is marked with an "N"
circa early 1600s

In 1930, the IAU (International Astronomical Union) defined constellation boundaries.  Because Ophiuchus sits behind the sun between November 29 and December 17, it has been used on occasion as a thirteenth sign.  That idea originated in the 1970s and even Cetus - a constellation known as "the whale" today - was added as a fourteenth sign.  Cetus was a sea monster in Greek mythology, and in ancient Mesopotamia was identified with Tiamat, the primordial cosmic female principle (and sea monster!)
Constellation of Cetus
Sir James Thornhill, 1729.

So, really, there's nothing new under the sun (and stars), and this new zodiacal craze will soon be forgotten and join all the departed crazes that have been born and have died since the beginning of humankind.  And all of us Sagittarius types can get back to horsing around.

All images, unless otherwise noted, courtesy of Wikipedia.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Something Cheesy...

"A meal without some cheese is like a
beautiful women with only one eye."


The moon IS made of cheese!
Cheese sculpture by Sarah Kaufmann.

The earliest cheeses may have been a happy accident, made by nomadic tribes in Central Asia.  Historians believe that they most likely carried milk in containers made of animal skins and internal organs, where it coagulated.  Pressed, these curds would've made an early form of cheese.  Cheese was a good way to preserve milk.

The earliest written reference to cheese is from tomb murals of Egypt dating to 2,000 BCE.  Dairy cattle have been raised in Europe for almost 5,000 years, and there is archaeological evidence that cheese was being made in the Netherlands about 2,000 BCE as well.

Cheese is usually made from the milk of animals who are ruminant and whose milk contains a short chain of fatty acids.  Milk from non-ruminants (pigs, boars, etc.) is not suitable because their milk contains  long chains of fatty acids.  We most commonly eat cheese made from cows, sheep, and goat.  However....

Balkan donkeys.

The most expensive cheese in the world is Pule, a cheese made from donkey milk. Priced at $616 a pound, it is made at Zasavica Special Nature Reserve in Belgrade, Serbia.  The milk is collected from the  Balkan donkeys that live at the reserve. "Pule" is Serbian for "foal".  Donkey milk has a history of desirability, beginning with the Greeks who saw it as a remedy for various ailments.  Hippocrates recommended it for the treatment of some diseases and a remedy for poisoning. Cleopatra was said to bathe in it, but Cleo is said to have done so many exotic things.

Moose milk cheese is exotic and also expensive.  There are moose cheesemakers in Scandinavia and Russia, but the most famous is Moose House, a fifty-nine acre farm in northern Sweden.  It is part of The Elk House (Älgens Hus) farm in Bjurholm, Sweden, run by Christer and Ulla Johansson.  Their cheese, sold mainly to upscale Swedish restaurants and hotels, sells for approximately $500 a pound. Moose produce milk from May to September, and it takes two hours to milk one moose.  Each moose delivers about one gallon a day.  The farm produces 660 pounds of the cheese a year in three varieties.  Their farm is a tourist site and attracts 25,000 visitors a year.  The cheese can be sampled on the farm.

Moose cheese.
Yak cheese, which is three times higher is omega-3 fatty acids than cheddar, is now being touted by health experts.  Yaks can be as a big as cows, but only give a few liters of milk each day, like a goat.  Since yaks eat a lot of wildflowers, that taste is reflected in their milk, and thus the cheese made from it.  Jonathan White tells of his experience helping Tibetan yak herders make cheese on his website.

Flower of Rajya yak milk cheese.
Now if these cheeses aren't exotic enough for you, or if you really think you are an intrepid foodie, then consider cheese made from human breast milk.  Chef Daniel Angerer crafted breast milk cheese from his wife's extra milk.  His website gives directions on making your own.  He uses it in his exclusive dishes:

Maple-caramelized pumpkin seeds encrust Mommy's milk cheese.
Mommy's milk cheese with beets and romaine.
There is also a farm in France that specializes in human milk cheese.  Le Petit Singly expects their donneuses (breast milk donors) to follow specific rules in their diet:

100 G of bread (or cereal equivalents) at a rate of 60g in the morning, 40g in the afternoon

cooked starchy food 200g at midday, 100 G in the evening
green vegetables at will
2 X 100 G of meat or equivalent (fish, eggs…)
2 fruits and a fruit juice
2 X 40g of cheese and 3 dairy products (of cow exclusively)

In addition the donneuses have other restrictions:

do not smoke
do not drink alcohol in excessive quantities
do not make use of narcotics or any domestic products likely to pass into milk

Wheels of human milk cheese from Le Petit Singly.

If you still have an appetite for cheese, here a couple of dishes that may interest you.  They are currently the most expensive of their respective kind, and perhaps much more appetizing...

Martin Blunos and his expensive sandwich.

Martin Blunos, a Michelin-starred chef, created the most expensive cheese sandwich in the world, although it has other ingredients.  The sandwich costs $174.10, partly because of the cheese.  Blunos worked with cheddar cheesemakers at Pilgrim's Choice to create the special white truffle cheese used.  Besides this special cheese, the sandwich includes slices from a $8 loaf of sourdough bread, dressed with extra virgin olive oil and 100-year-old balsamic vinegar, slices of quail's egg, heirloom black tomato, epicure apple, fresh figs, red frill mustard, pea shoots, and red amaranth.  The whole thing is topped with edible gold dust.

Sandwich with gold dust.

Welsh rarebit is a type of cheese toast.  Chef Tom Bridge makes one that is the most expensive costing a grand total of $609 to make.  He uses a slice of Warburtons Toastie bread topped with Lancashire cheese, which melts nicely, and L'Aguila white Umbrian truffles ($1,228 per pound), Matsutake Chinese mushrooms ($556 per pound), shredded Red Velvet Organic beetroot, and slow-roasted vine cherry tomatoes in extra virgin white truffle oil.  Click here for his recipe.

Bridge's Welsh Rarebit.

These aren't your childhood grilled cheeses, which I remember fondly.  Nor are they processed with preservatives and food coloring, and they don't come in an aerosol can.  The quality of ingredients and processing dictates the very high prices.  However, the love and use of cheese is not universal.  It is rarely found in East Asian dishes, as there is a high incidence of lactose intolerance in that part of the world.  On the other hand, cheese is a vital source of nutrition in many areas of the world.  Speaking of which, I hear some Havarti calling me...

All images from their respective websites.
Thanks to the staff of Culture Magazine for referring me to Pule.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

We're Not in Kansas Anymore

"Touched by His Noodly Appendage" by Niklas Jansson, August 2005.
A parody of Michelangelo's "Creation of Adam", this depiction is the
brand image for the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

In May of 2005 the Kansas State Board of Education and its State Board Science Hearing Committee met to change the teaching methods of evolution and the origin of life in high school classrooms.  These hearings were arranged by the Christian Board of Education whose agenda was to use intelligent design (ID) in the curriculum.  The hearings attracted lots of interest and were attended by the major players in the ID movement.  They were boycotted by the scientific community, who rejected the concept that ID was science.  The Board of Education adopted the teaching of ID over the objections of the State Board Science Hearing Committee.  But on February 13, 2007, the Board reversed itself.

In January 2005, just months prior to the hearings, Oregon State University physics grad Bobby Henderson sent an open letter to the Kansas State Board of Education with his own theory, which he claimed was equal to ID.  Enter the Flying Spaghetti Monster (FSM).  Henderson's thinking was that since ID used ambiguous references to a "Designer", then any conceivable party could be that figure, including the FSM.  A new parody religion was born, taking its place alongside Russell's teapot and the Invisible Pink Unicorn.

A hand-crafted model of the FSM.

In May, 2005, hearing no response from the Kansas State Board of Education, Henderson posted his letter on his website.  Pastafarianism, as the belief in the supernatural creator FSM is called, became a huge internet sensation.  Since then he has published responses from Board members, hate mail, and death threats. Within a year he received more than 15,000 emails about the FSM, which he stated were 95% supportive.  His website had more then 350,000,000 hits and used 700 gigabytes of bandwidth a month.  The open letter was printed in many newspapers, including the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Chicago Sun Times, and received worldwide attention.

The FSM "fish" emblem is a parody of the Christian Ichthys symbol.

As the concept gained popularity, the satire became popular with bloggers and internet humor websites.  An International Society for Flying Spaghetti Monster Awareness emerged, along with other fan sites.  In August of 2005, Boing Boing offered a $250,000 prize (later upped to $1,000,000) of "Intelligently Designed currency" to anyone who could produce empirical evidence that Jesus is not the son of the FSM.  The challenged sparked even more interest in the FSM.

Henderson's book, entitled The Gospel of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, was released in March of 2006. The book presents the beliefs of Pastafarianism, and includes a creation myth, a propaganda guide for proselytizing, and pseudo-scientific proof.  The FSM is invisible and undetectable.  It separated the waters from the heavens on the first day; on the second he created land, as he couldn't swim for long and grew tired of flying.  The land featured a beer volcano, which the FSM overindulged in.  Hung over and in a drunken state he went on creating, including Man.  Man and Woman lived in the Olive Garden of Eden until the FSM caused a global flood from a cooking accident.  The book was well-received for its irony and humor, and was nominated for the Quill Award in Humor that same year.

The Gospel, written by the prophet
of Pastafarianism, Bobby Henderson.

Mosey the Pirate received ten stone tablets from the FSM, but dropped two of them climbing down from Mount Salsa.  The Eight "I'd Really Rather You Didn'ts" that survived address a number of behaviors, but the loss of two of them accounts for Pastafarians' weak morals.  The cause for the Earth's flaws is from the FSM's intoxication.  Every Friday is a holy day, and prayers are concluded with the affirmation, "Ramen".  September 19 is International Talk Like a Pirate Day.

Official logo.

Pirates are big with Pastafarians.  In his original letter to the Kansas State Board of Education, Henderson argued that global warming and natural disasters are the direct result of the shrinking number of pirates since the 1800s.  This parodies the belief that the high number of natural disasters is the result of lack of respect for the deity worshipped by religious groups.  In 2008, Henderson pointed out that all the pirate activities in the Gulf of Aden were proof of his theory because Somalia has both the highest number of pirates and lowest carbon emissions in the world. Pastafarians believe pirates were peaceful explorers, and the connotation that they were thieves and outcasts came from misinformation spread by Christian theologians from the Middle Ages and Hare Krishnas.

Satirical diagram included in Henderson's open letter.

Currently The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster has thousands of followers, most from college campuses and Europe.  The Associated Press calls Henderson's website, "a kind of cyber-watercooler for opponents of Intelligent Design". Missouri State University, since October of 2008,  holds an annual convention called Skepticon on campus which includes Pastafarians.  Atheists and skeptics give speeches and debate Christian experts.  It's touted as the "largest gathering of atheists in the Midwest".

The American Academy of Religion at their 2007 annual meeting featured four talks regarding the FSM, which examined the elements necessary for a group to be considered a religion.  On Kiva, the non-profit website promoting microfinance, Pastafarians are in competition with a Mormon faction to best all the other religious groups in the number of loans issued via their team efforts.  As of September 2010, Pastafarians had funded more than $380,000 in loans.

The popularity of the FSM shows that belief in creation is arbitrary and that one view is as good as the next.  As supporters and free thinkers alike have said, the onus of proof is on the believer.
All images courtesy of Wikipedia.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

"Tremble and Obey"

Portrait of the Qianlong Emperor (1711 - 1799)
on a silk scroll in court dress by an anonymous artist.
  Image courtesy of the Palace Museum, Beijing.

Thus was the imperial closing of a letter to England's King George III by the Chinese Qianlong Emperor.  He was the sixth emperor of the Qing Dynasty, and a successful military leader and a major patron of the arts. He commissioned a catalog of all important works on Chinese culture, the Siku Quanshu, Complete Library in Four Branches of Literature.  Using about 15,000 copyists, it took twenty years to produce the 36,000 volumes of 3,450 complete works.  This is the largest collection of books in Chinese history, and perhaps the most ambitious editorial project ever.

An interior of the Qianlong Garden Restoration Project that has been restored.

While it preserved many works, it also suppressed works of political opponents. The full editing of the Siku Quanshu took about ten years.  In the process 3,100 works and 150,000 copies of books were banned or burned.  "Literary Inquisition" was the official persecution of intellectuals for their writings in Imperial China, and the Qing dynasty were infamous for using it.  A nefarious political tool, even a single phrase or word could be considered offensive by the ruler.  Persecution of those found guilty could result in beheading, mutilated corpses, or victims sliced into pieces until dead.  Sometimes the punishment would extend to the families of those found guilty.

A fan made from Yanghe Jingshe wood, brass, and paint.

The Qianlong Emperor was more favorably known as a patron of the arts.  A very prolific poet and essayist himself, over 40,000 poems and 1,300 prose texts that he wrote were published between 1749 and 1800.  Ceramics, pottery, enameling, lacquer and metal work prospered, and much of his own collection is now shared in the Percival David Foundation in London.  Many pieces of his fine art collection can be found in the British Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Screen from the Garden site.

As an emperor, he presided over the Qing dynasty, China's last, at the zenith of its wealth and power.  In 1771 he created a retirement retreat within the Forbidden City, and filled it with paintings and decorative and religious works.  Deep within the Forbidden City, this two-acre retreat truly was forbidden.  Since the last emperor left in 1924 not many have seen this site.  The Qianlong Garden Restoration Project is being restored with help from the World Monument Fund.

An imperial theater room with stage.

The garden has four courtyards and 27 pavilions and structures.  The decorations and furnishings reflect the spectacular art from this period of Chinese history, and the site has remained unchanged from imperial times. Imagine!  Untouched since 1795!  Only one building is finished in its restoration, and the entire garden is expected to be done by 2019.

Shrine and statue of Jingang, made of either calcite or lapis lazuli,
with gilt, copper, silver, and glass.

With names like the Studio of Exhaustion from Diligent Service (the only one whose restoration is completed), the Supreme Chamber of Cultivating Harmony, the Studio of Self-restraint, the Pavilion of Purification, and the Terrace for Collecting Morning Dew, who wouldn't want to retire here?

Mural from one of the interiors of the site.

An exhibition organized by the Peabody Essex Museum in partnership with the Palace Museum and with cooperation from the World Monument Fund opened last September and ended earlier this month.  It will go on exhibit at the MET beginning February 1st for three months, then move on to open at the Milwaukee Art Museum on June 11th.  There was some consternation in China that these objects were to be shown publicly for the first time in the U.S., but in the interest of promoting the restoration of the entire Forbidden City site, it was decided to allow the Peabody Essex Museum to present the first glimpse of these objects anywhere in the world.

A hanging shrine on silk with intricate depictions of
supernatural beings.  The Qianlong Emperor holds
the center position and is shown in gold.

These objects represent the crème de la crème of extant art at the time.  And most reflect the contemplative aspect of the Qianlong Emperor's life as a scholar, a Buddhist, and a Confucian.  It was not about the power and the glory, but rather the rich life and informed taste of the elite mind.

A wood cabinet made of lacquer and gilding.

With the release of these objects one can only hope that further cultural sharing will be forthcoming from China.  Their complex and rich history has only begun to be understood, and these cultural icons will be an interesting and important way to "read" their history.

A hanging panel with niches and Buddhist figures.

Locked away, hidden to all but a few, these items and the site itself will be available to all with an interest in a unique time and place.

All images courtesy of the Peabody Essex Museum, except as noted.

Monday, January 24, 2011

What Lies Beneath...

La Evolución Silenciosa (The Silent Evolution).  One of four sculptural
installations by artist Jason deCaries Taylor.

In 2009, the National Marine Park of Yucatan, Mexico, became the site of a monumental (literally) underwater museum called MUSA (Museo Subacuático de Arte).  The project, a joint effort of Jaime Gonzalez Cano of the Park, Roberto Diaz of The Cancun Nautical Association, and sculptor Jason deCaires Taylor, is one of the largest artificial underwater attractions in the world.  The Marine Park attracts approximately 750,000 visitors a year, which puts a lot of strain on the natural resources there.  It is hoped that the project, which provides an unusual artificial reef, will give the natural reefs a break and allow them to regenerate. 

The National Marine Park of Isla Mujeres, Punta Canyon
and  Punta Nizuc in the northern state of Quintana Roo.
The sculptures are within the boundaries of the Park
on sandy areas of substrate close to these areas.
There are four installations.  The first one is La Evolución Silenciosa (The Silent Evolution), a collection of 400 life-size figures that depict the visual and social changes of humanity over the past centuries.  The casts were taken from a broad cross-section of humankind, although mostly Mexican.  All occupations of life are covered:  a fisherman, yoga instructor, student, carpenter, and an accountant, among many others.  This is a gathering of people whose appearance will change over time as coral grows and marine life fills in the spaces. 

Visitors can swim around the sculptures and observe them.  For those visitors that prefer not to dive, there are glass-bottomed boats available.  The sculptures are 9 meters (about 29-1/2 feet) below the surface.  There is no fee to enter the Marine Park, but visitors are advised to use a tour guide.

El Coleccionista de los Sueños Perdidos (The Archive of Lost Dreams) is another of the installations.  This unusual depiction is of a male archivist who tends the archives of messages in bottles.  According to the artist the archivist is cataloging and sorting the bottles into categories:  fear, hope, loss, or belonging.  Communities from a wide variety of cultural, ethnic, and religious backgrounds were invited to provide the messages in an attempt to document their values and hopes for future generations.

The third installation is Hombre en Llamas (Man on Fire), a lone defiant man standing upright with 75 holes planted with live cuttings of fire coral (Millepora alcicorni).  This brown, yellow, and orange coral stings when touched, hence its name.  The intent is that once the figure is covered in this coral it will make the man appear to be on fire.  This statue weighs over one ton, and was cast from a local fisherman.
The last of the current installations is called La Jardinera de la Esperanza (The Gardener of Hope).  This young girl is lying on patio steps propagating pots with live coral cuttings that were placed in them.  These coral cuttings, like the ones on Man on Fire, were rescued from reefs where they were damaged by people and weather activity.  By providing a new substrate, the coral can be conserved.

Further installations are planned in the area.  The plans for this year include commissioning artists, local and international, to contribute their work.  Also underwater cultural events are planned to celebrate both science and the arts.

This is not the first time Jason deCaires Taylor has worked underwater.  He also has 65 sculptures in another National Marine Park in Mollinere Bay in Grenada. There was considerable damage from Hurricane Ivan in 2004.  Then in 2005,  Hurricane Emily added to the damage of the area.  The sculptures have provided a new base for marine life and by attracting visitors give the natural reefs a chance to recuperate.  He also has other small-scale underwater sculptures in Great Britain, which can be seen on his website.

This is an interesting concept and solution to saving the coral reefs.  Time will tell how effective it will be, but in the meantime it's a chance to experience art and nature together.  Is the man a genius or crazy? And is there a difference?  

All Images courtesy of Jason deCaires Taylor from his website.