October 30th, 2010

evolution has no foresight

A giraffe is dissected to reveal an evolutionary bungle, which demonstrates evolution’s improvisatory nature.

October 28th, 2010

the panther

Above: Rainer Maria Rilke, Autumn 1923. Adapted from this photo.

Below, probably Rilke’s most popular poem “Der Panther”:

Im Jardin des Plantes, Paris

Sein Blick ist von Vorübergehen der Stäbe
so müd geworden, daß er nichts mehr hält.
Ihm ist, als ob es tausend Stäbe gäbe
und hinter tausend Stäben keine Welt.

Der weiche Gang geschmeidig starker Schritte,
der sich im allerkleinsten Kreise dreht,
ist wie ein Tanz von Kraft um eine Mitte,
in der betäubt ein großer Wille steht.

Nur manchmal schiebt der Vorhang der Pupille
sich lautlos auf—. Dann geht ein Bild hinein,
geht durch der Glieder angespannte Stille—
und hört im Herzen auf zu sein.

There are, it would seem, hundreds of English translations online, many of them quite rubbish. The one I like the most out of those that I’ve read so far is by Robert Bly. It does away, mostly, with the rhyme, but seems more faithful to the mood and meaning of the original than others. His translation is below (via here).

In the Jardin des Plantes, Paris

From seeing the bars, his seeing is so exhausted
that it no longer holds anything anymore.
To him the world is bars, a hundred thousand
bars, and behind the bars, nothing.

The lithe swinging of that rhythmical easy stride
which circles down to the tiniest hub
is like a dance of energy around a point
in which a great will stands stunned and numb.

Only at times the curtains of the pupil rise
without a sound . . . then a shape enters,
slips through the tightened silence of the shoulders,
reaches the heart, and dies.

October 24th, 2010

you’re doing it wrong, Panamarenko

Bernouilli by Panamarenko. Photo by Dirk Pauwels.

Panamarenko is a contemporary Belgian artist whose work is often aeronautical or mechanical in theme. His work had quite a large presence at the recent Xanadu! exhibition at Ghent’s museum of contemporary art this summer. That’s where I saw his Bernouilli (pictured above).

Most of all I like his humour and the idea behind his methodology. From the Xanadu! guidebook:

What Panamarenko does in fact in all his works is not to try to make something work that will never work. What he does is to ask himself how something might work even if it’s approached in a wrong manner. When he makes a flying rucksack with a Suzuki engine like Hazerug (1992-1998), he turns the Suzuki engine upside down because it looks better that way. It doesn’t function because the spark plug is flooded. Then he searches for ten years for ways to make the engine run after all, even though it’s used upside down. Anyone that knows anything about engines sees right away that the engine’s hanging upside down. It’s a joke. Yet from that joke flows an in-depth study from which Panamarenko learns an awful lot. After ten years study and testing he knows why the Suzuki engine can never work upside down. He is constantly acquiring fresh knowledge by saying that for aesthetic reasons something should be able to function even if it’s approached in a wrong way — that’s the funny side of it, because it always starts from aesthetic reasons that interfere with the usual approach of a mechanism and then begins a period of amazing research that can last a long time and that can lead to very many formal and technical results.

The idea of starting with an apparently unworkable concept is appealing to me because it aligns with a recent revelation of mine. Often I am prone to a perfectionism in my own creative work, to the extent that it actually debilitates me or prevents me from starting work in the first place. Recently I’ve discovered that the key is not to set standards of perfection towards which to work, but rather to be constantly aware of the process and to make unexpected or contrary developments work in your favour. To always be open to improvisation, even when you had the “perfect” outcome in mind already. This way there is no point of failure — there is only a rising gradient of difficulty, the end of the process being marked by a gut feeling of arrival.

To start out with perfection in mind is crippling to any creative process. When your initial expectations are (inevitably) disappointed, you can either become frustrated or try to re-evaluate the project. If you become frustrated and upset, you are no longer in the frame of mind necessary to be creative, i.e., open, resourceful, confident, interested.

Perhaps you could see the difference in practice as not seeing the artwork as yours until you have arrived at the end point. If you are attached to a project or artwork from the start, it becomes already an extension of you. And when you see something you don’t like developing in the project — something worrying because unexpected — the initial reaction is to disown the project. To cast it off as a failure, and to either restart or quit at that point. This is like when something unplanned and apparently unresolvable happens to us, or in us, in everyday life; there’s a tendency to be taken by self-pity, which is a way of disowning the self. Of saying “this is no longer my responsibility, I give up”. Just like in life, the solution is a combination of persistence, flexible thinking and a sense of humour.

October 24th, 2010

I am all sere and yellow and to my core mellow

I am the autumnal sun by Henry Thoreau:

Sometimes a mortal feels in himself Nature
— not his Father but his Mother stirs
within him, and he becomes immortal with her
immortality. From time to time she claims
kindredship with us, and some globule
from her veins steals up into our own.

I am the autumnal sun,
With autumn gales my race is run;
When will the hazel put forth its flowers,
Or the grape ripen under my bowers?
When will the harvest or the hunter’s moon
Turn my midnight into mid-noon?
I am all sere and yellow,
And to my core mellow.
The mast is dropping within my woods,
The winter is lurking within my moods,
And the rustling of the withered leaf
Is the constant music of my grief…

Thanks Kasina for the poem.

October 18th, 2010

no sympathy for falling ants

Biomechanics @ wiki:

If an animal were scaled up by a considerable amount, its muscular strength would be severely reduced since the cross section of its muscles would increase by the square of the scaling factor while their mass would increase by the cube of the scaling factor. As a result of this, cardiovascular functions would be severely limited.

In the case of flying animals, their wing loading would be increased if they were scaled up, and they would therefore have to fly faster to gain the same amount of lift. Air resistance per unit mass is also higher for smaller animals, which is why a small animal like an ant cannot die by falling from any height.

As was elucidated by Haldane, large animals do not look like small animals: an elephant cannot be mistaken for a mouse scaled up in size. The bones of an elephant are necessarily proportionately much larger than the the bones of a mouse, because they must carry proportionately higher weight. Because of this, the giant animals seen in horror movies (e.g., Godzilla) are unrealistic, as their sheer size would force them to collapse. However, it’s no coincidence that the largest animals in existence today are giant aquatic animals, because the buoyancy of water negates to some extent the effects of gravity. Therefore, sea creatures can grow to very large sizes without the same musculoskeletal structures that would be required of similarly sized land creatures.

I’d guessed it was something to do with the scaling of physical laws. But here it is explained rather elegantly.

I’d love to see a biomechanically accurate Godzilla.

October 17th, 2010

The McThatcher Effect

You may have heard of the Thatcher effect (above).

The McThatcher effect is a combination of the Thatcher effect and the McGurk effect (“The McGurk effect shows that visual articulatory information is integrated into our perception of speech automatically and unconsciously.”).

See an example of the McThatcher effect.

There’s an uncanny feeling as you realize that your sense faculties are so fallible as individual parts. The McThatcher effect goes to show how closely linked the evolution of our different sense organs has been.

October 15th, 2010


Platypuses can detect their prey using electrodetectors located in their bills:

The Platypus can determine the direction of an electric source, perhaps by comparing differences in signal strength across the sheet of electroreceptors. This would explain the characteristic side-to-side motion of the animal’s head while hunting. The cortical convergence of electrosensory and tactile inputs suggests a mechanism for determining the distance of prey items which, when they move, emit both electrical signals and mechanical pressure pulses: the difference between the times of arrival of the two signals would allow computation of distance.

The Platypus feeds by neither sight nor smell, closing its eyes, ears, and nose each time it dives. Rather, when it digs in the bottom of streams with its bill, its electroreceptors detect tiny electrical currents generated by muscular contractions of its prey, so enabling it to distinguish between animate and inanimate objects, which continuously stimulate its mechanoreceptors. Experiments have shown that the Platypus will even react to an “artificial shrimp” if a small electrical current is passed through it.


See also: Magnetoception.

October 8th, 2010

A Vineyard Walk, Lucca (1874)

More John Ruskin paintings. Thanks Alice for the heads up.

October 8th, 2010

the underlicked rats were permanently stressed out

I read recently about how bees epigenetically engineer their own kind to create queen bees. That is, they don’t change the genetic code but they alter the environment and nutrition of developing worker bees so that different genes are activated or deactivated, resulting in a physical change despite their genes remaining unchanged.

Today there’s news about a study of epigenetic changes in rat brains — changes that are actuated in response to physical and emotional stimuli. Essentially the rats were monitored to see if there was an epigenetic difference to be observed in rats who were loved (licked and attended to by their mothers) and those who were not. To put it simply, those who were loved developed an ability to deal with stress, while those that were not remained constantly stressed.

A further experiment was done to see if the same might be true for humans. To see if human brains can be epigenetically altered by abuse:

Meaney’s team examined 36 human brains taken from cadavers. Twelve of the brains came from people who had committed suicide and had a history of abuse as children. Another 12 had committed suicide without any such history. The final 12 had died of natural causes. The scientists zeroed in on the cells from the hippocampi of the cadavers, examining the switch for the stress hormone gene they had studied in rats. Meaney and his colleagues found that the brains of people who had experienced child abuse had relatively more methyl groups capping the switch, just as the researchers had seen in rats that had not been licked much as pups. And just as those rats produced fewer receptors for stress hormones, the neurons of the people who had suffered child abuse had fewer receptors as well.

Child abuse may leave a mark on its victims in much the same way that parental neglect affects rat pups. Abuse seems to have altered the epigenetic marks in their hippocampi. As a result, they made fewer stress receptors on their neurons, which left them unable to regulate their stress hormones, leading to a life of anxiety. That extra stress may have played a part in their committing suicide.

And this is incredible:

The influence of environment doesn’t end with childhood. Recent work indicates that adult experiences can also rearrange epigenetic marks in the brain and thereby change our behavior. Depression, for example, may be in many ways an epigenetic disease. Several groups of scientists have mimicked human depression in mice by pitting the animals against each other. If a mouse loses a series of fights against dominant rivals, its personality shifts. It shies away from contact with other mice and moves around less. When the mice are given access to a machine that lets them administer cocaine to themselves, the defeated mice take more of it.

More at Discover.

October 8th, 2010

the best tea leaves must curl like the dewlap of a mighty bullock

From The Book of Tea by Kakuzo Okakura:

It needed the genius of the Tang dynasty to emancipate Tea from its crude state and lead to its final idealization. With Luwuh in the middle of the eighth century we have our first apostle of tea. He was born in an age when Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism were seeking mutual synthesis. The pantheistic symbolism of the time was urging one to mirror the Universal in the Particular. Luwuh, a poet, saw in the Tea-service the same harmony and order which reigned through all things. In his celebrated work, the “Chaking” (The Holy Scripture of Tea) he formulated the Code of Tea. He has since been worshipped as the tutelary god of the Chinese tea merchants.

The “Chaking” consists of three volumes and ten chapters. In the first chapter Luwuh treats of the nature of the tea-plant, in the second of the implements for gathering the leaves, in the third of the selection of the leaves. According to him the best quality of the leaves must have “creases like the leathern boot of Tartar horsemen, curl like the dewlap of a mighty bullock, unfold like a mist rising out of a ravine, gleam like a lake touched by a zephyr, and be wet and soft like fine earth newly swept by rain.”

The fourth chapter is devoted to the enumeration and description of the twenty-four members of the tea-equipage, beginning with the tripod brazier and ending with the bamboo cabinet for containing all these utensils. Here we notice Luwuh’s predilection for Taoist symbolism. Also it is interesting to observe in this connection the influence of tea on Chinese ceramics. The Celestial porcelain, as is well known, had its origin in an attempt to reproduce the exquisite shade of jade, resulting, in the Tang dynasty, in the blue glaze of the south, and the white glaze of the north. Luwuh considered the blue as the ideal colour for the tea-cup, as it lent additional greenness to the beverage, whereas the white made it look pinkish and distasteful. It was because he used cake-tea. Later on, when the tea masters of Sung took to the powdered tea, they preferred heavy bowls of blue-black and dark brown. The Mings, with their steeped tea, rejoiced in light ware of white porcelain.

In the fifth chapter Luwuh describes the method of making tea. He eliminates all ingredients except salt. He dwells also on the much-discussed question of the choice of water and the degree of boiling it. According to him, the mountain spring is the best, the river water and the spring water come next in the order of excellence. There are three stages of boiling: the first boil is when the little bubbles like the eye of fishes swim on the surface; the second boil is when the bubbles are like crystal beads rolling in a fountain; the third boil is when the billows surge wildly in the kettle. The Cake-tea is roasted before the fire until it becomes soft like a baby’s arm and is shredded into powder between pieces of fine paper. Salt is put in the first boil, the tea in the second. At the third boil, a dipperful of cold water is poured into the kettle to settle the tea and revive the “youth of the water.” Then the beverage was poured into cups and drunk. O nectar! The filmy leaflet hung like scaly clouds in a serene sky or floated like waterlilies on emerald streams. It was of such a beverage that Lotung, a Tang poet, wrote: “The first cup moistens my lips and throat, the second cup breaks my loneliness, the third cup searches my barren entrail but to find therein some five thousand volumes of odd ideographs. The fourth cup raises a slight perspiration,—all the wrong of life passes away through my pores. At the fifth cup I am purified; the sixth cup calls me to the realms of the immortals. The seventh cup—ah, but I could take no more! I only feel the breath of cool wind that rises in my sleeves. Where is Horaisan? Let me ride on this sweet breeze and waft away thither.”

The book is a poetic guide through the history of tea culture in China and Japan. The fascinating relationship between tea, Taoism, Zenism and Confucianism is explained by Okakura, who is (was) skilled in writing for the Western perspective.

I feel inclined to quote the whole book, but instead I’ll just provide the link to where it resides online at the Gutenberg project. I’m reading the hardback version though — suitably more romantic.

October 7th, 2010

a diet of sunlight

The Eastern Emerald Elysia (a green sea slug) is one of a kind in the animal kingdom. Like plants, it is able to convert the sun’s light into energy for its own use. It makes its own chlorophyll and carries out photosynthesis. It does have to stock up on algae first, but once it’s done that, it can live for months on sunlight alone.

More info: livescience. Photo Credit: Nicholas E. Curtis and Ray Martinez.

October 6th, 2010

eschew obfuscation

Fumblerules are humorous rules for writing, collected from teachers of English grammar. A fumblerule contains an example contrary to the advice it gives, such as “don’t use no double negatives”, “eschew obfuscation” and “never use a preposition to end a sentence with”.

(via Wikipedia).

October 6th, 2010

revolution 909

I like this music video (Roman Coppola, 1996). The track is Revolution 909 by Daft Punk.

Finding this video was a happy accident. I was looking for information about Sofia Coppola’s new film (Somewhere), when I found myself on a wikipedia trail. I was surprised to learn Francis Ford Coppola’s family tree contains not only his famous offspring, directors Sofia and Roman Coppola, but also Nicholas Cage and Jason Schwarzman, who are Francis Ford’s nephews and therefore the cousins of Sofia and Roman. And there are more Hollywood names in the tree.

October 5th, 2010

to lock eyes with a stranger

The city is full of people we can’t reach. We pass them on sidewalks, sit across from them in the subway and in restaurants; we glimpse their lighted windows from our own lighted windows late at night. That’s in New York. In most of America, people float alongside one another on freeways as they drive between the city and the places where they live. To lock eyes with a stranger is to feel the gulf between proximity and familiarity and to wish — at least sometimes, briefly, most of us — that we could jump the hedges of our own narrow lives and find those people again when they drift out of sight.

Jennifer Egan
New York Times magazine, Nov. 23, 2003

(via dotalktostrangers.net.)

October 5th, 2010

about suffering

Click to Enlarge.

Above: Brueghel’s The Fall of Icarus (1558). The painting is a scene of everyday life in which Icarus’ personal tragedy is given a tiny corner by the artist (see his white legs disappearing into the water in the bottom right corner). The painting is kept at the Museum of Fine Art in Brussels.

W.H. Auden wrote a poem inspired by the painting and named the poem after the museum in which it hangs:

Musée des Beaux Arts

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters; how well, they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

This was given as an example of intertextuality in my first literature class.

October 3rd, 2010

it was a fauxcellarm

If you think you hear your phone ringing but find you’re mistaken, then it was just a fauxcellarm. Equally, if you feel your phone vibrate in your pocket, only to discover your phone is lying silently on the table, it could also be described as fauxcellarm or ringxiety. I applaud whomever came up with these terms to describe phantom ringing (wiki).

The phenomenon can be a simple mishearing or it could have a psychosomatic origin:

An intense “need” for contact, such as experienced during involuntary extended isolation may produce a similar effect although not explicitly named as such.

An example of this is shown in the 1971 movie “The Omega Man” at ~8m:20s where Robert Neville (played by Charlton Heston) — obviously entirely alone in a large city for several years — hears all the phones around him ring at once, but then reminds himself that “… There is no phone ringing, damnit!” at ~8m:55s as he cowers exhibiting something between shame and anger.

The New York Times has an article about the phenomenon from 2006.

October 2nd, 2010

ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge

The Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which an unskilled person makes poor decisions and reaches erroneous conclusions, but their incompetence denies them the metacognitive ability to realize their mistakes. The unskilled therefore suffer from illusory superiority, rating their own ability as above average, much higher than it actually is, while the highly skilled underrate their abilities, suffering from illusory inferiority. This leads to the situation in which less competent people rate their own ability higher than more competent people. It also explains why actual competence may weaken self-confidence: because competent individuals falsely assume that others have an equivalent understanding. “Thus, the miscalibration of the incompetent stems from an error about the self, whereas the miscalibration of the highly competent stems from an error about others.”

The Dunning–Kruger effect was put forward by Justin Kruger and David Dunning. Similar notions have been expressed – albeit less scientifically – for some time. Dunning and Kruger themselves quote Charles Darwin (“Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge”) and Bertrand Russell (“One of the painful things about our time is that those who feel certainty are stupid, and those with any imagination and understanding are filled with doubt and indecision.”). W.B. Yeats put it concisely thus: “the best lack all conviction while the worst are filled with passionate intensity.” The Dunning–Kruger effect is not, however, concerned narrowly with high-order cognitive skills (much less their application in the political realm during a particular era, which is what Russell was talking about.) Nor is it specifically limited to the observation that ignorance of a topic is conducive to overconfident assertions about it, which is what Darwin was saying. Indeed, Dunning et al. cite a study saying that 94% of college professors rank their work as “above average” (relative to their peers), to underscore that the highly intelligent and informed are hardly exempt. Rather, the effect is about paradoxical defects in perception of skill, in oneself and others, regardless of the particular skill and its intellectual demands, whether it is chess, playing golf or driving a car.

The Dunning-Kruger effect at wikipedia.

October 1st, 2010

belgian bananas

It’s getting cold and grey in Ghent but there are still tropical plants in and around the glasshouses at the university’s botanical garden.

It’s interesting to me how my own inaccurate reproduction of the scene above in paint is already replacing my memory of the real thing in my mind. The more I look at my own painting, the more it becomes my memory. The same thing happens with old photographs, I find.

Although, to be fair to my brain, I do remember more detail from the real scene than I would have if I hadn’t painted it at all, even if the painted version is encroaching on that memory.

A caveat: These images are a tad unsharp because I copied the paintings with my camera instead of scanning the originals.

Though these paintings are still heavy handed and lacking in control, I feel like I’m paving the way for improvement every time I paint something new. The hardest part, again and again, is summoning the confidence and ease of mind to finish the painting when — during every painting in this beginning phase — I inevitably lose control of the painting.

Powered by Wordpress. Theme info.
Original content © MMIX Jonathan Beaton, all rights reserved.