“Strawberry Moon”

I’m a little late getting this up, but these two diagrams illustrate what you see at latitude 40 N on the summer solstice, when there is a full moon (so-called “strawberry moon – borrowed from folklore). This doesn’t occur often, but an almost full moon at the solstice is quite common. So there is nothing about the appearance of a strawberry moon that is special. It is only that it is full on the same day as the solstice.

This means the moon is in “opposition” to the sun, that is, in the opposite direction from the earth. Since the sun is at the summer solstice (in the constellation Taurus, the bull), the moon must be at the winter solstice (in the constellation Sagittarius, the archer).

Well, almost at the winter solstice. You will notice in the second diagram that the sun is 73.5 degrees above the horizon, while the moon is +/- 26.5 degrees above the horizon. Why the hedging about the moon’s angle? Well, the moon doesn’t orbit the earth exactly in the plane of the ecliptic. If it did, there would be a lunar eclipse and a solar eclipse every month. The orbit is tilted at about 5 degrees, and I don’t happen to know how much it was off the plane of the ecliptic on June 20, 2016, hence the hedging

Diagram showing direction of sunset and moonrise
Diagram showing direction of sunset and moonrise


Diagram showing sun at noon and moon at midnight
Diagram showing sun at noon and moon at midnight

Postscript: the orbit of the moon lies in a plane that is tilted relative to the plane of the ecliptic by a little more than 5 degrees. So there is a line where the two plane intersect, and if you extend this line, it points to a specific point in the sky, somewhere in the zodiac. This point slowly moves  through the constellations of the zodiac, making a complete trip every 18.6 years.

The reason for this is that the plane of the moon’s orbit precesses, just like the plane of the earth’s orbit. The moon is much smaller than the earth, so it precesses every 18.6 years, while the earth’s orbital plane precesses every 25,000 years, known as the precession of the equinoxes. This is why the north celestial pole used to be near Vega, but is now near Polaris.

I read that this 18.6 year cycle was important to several prehistoric cultures. We know this by analyzing various astronomical constructions they made. Just like solstice means “sun standstill”, the corresponding event for the moon is called the “lunar standstill.”

We pay dearly for living indoors in cities, as we have few occasions for observing the night sky. Prehistoric peoples knew a lot of astronomy!

The Art of the Body

The oldest art medium may be the human body. The most familiar body art is clothing, including armor, jewelry, accessories and headdresses. Here I want to discuss using the body itself as a medium instead of an armature on which to hang dress and adornment, although there is really no sharp boundary between direct manipulation of the body and adornment hung on the body.

Modern forms in this genre are make-up, hair dyeing and styling, and perfume, but the practice likely predates the evolution of modern humans. Evidence that cannot endure the millennia has vanished, but the mineral red ochre has been found in prehistoric sites dating back 200,000 to 250,000 years ago (http://www.pnas.org/content/109/6/1889.full.) Although no one knows what it was used for, it was not a local material at the sites, and since nearly every pre-modern society we know of uses it for body painting, it is not unreasonable to assume it was so used by ancient hominins (including Neanderthals).

Body painting was widely used by pre-modern peoples as beautification and as a part of rituals (the past tense reflects the inevitable modernization of dress and decoration after a people are assimilated into modern global civilization). This practice persists, sometimes in surprising ways not associated with the theater, as we will see.

Mutilation is another branch of body art. Common contemporary examples include pierced ears for earrings and tattooing. Pre-modern examples include the insertion of large disks into the skin of lips and ears, the deformation of a girls’ clavicle bones by a stack of decorative hoops exaggerating the length of the neck, the thankfully abolished practice of Chinese “lily feet”, scarification, insertion of bones through the skin and the like. Contemporary self-mutilation includes weights hanging from hooks through penises or buried in the skin, evidently to act out masochistic urges. Many contemporaries (few from my generation) sport rings through the nose, belly, or other body parts.

Child's face painting

Children love to have their faces painted, but other forms of body painting thrive in contemporary society. In my search for information on pre-modern examples, I innocently Googled “body painting” and was startled to find endless images of elaborately painted, typically attractive and entirely nude women. This has apparently been an organized practice at least since the 1960’s, an outgrowth of our newly (and incompletely) liberated attitudes toward nakedness and sex. Men are also painted, but it is hard to integrate their exposed genitals into a convincing image, while a shaved pubis can be readily disguised, at least from a respectful distance.

The countess-model Veruschka turned body painting into an art form, as can be seen on her website http://veruschka.net. There she is “painted into” elaborate backgrounds until she is virtually invisible, enticing the viewers to play a sort of “Where’s Waldo” game. Many other artists have picked up this theme. In my post “A New Way to Think About Art” I show a photo of Veruschka’s head disguised as a rock.

Another iconic example is the follow-up cover of Vanity Fair magazine on the anniversary of Demi Moore’s famous 1991 nude photo while 7 months pregnant. In the follow-up, the newly trim Demi is painted as if wearing a three-piece suit. And Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit issue now features models with painted-on bathing suits. Perhaps the fad will spread, but paint doesn’t last as long as bathing suits, however abbreviated. I have questions about using the toilet while painted, a subject we shall politely pass over.

Today’s body painting covers a broad range: Verushka’s serious art; other attempts at high art including happenings where painted nudes are used as tools to make images; soft-core porn where painted-on scanty clothing enhances the sexiness of the models; borrowings from fantasy genres; animal imagery; sports team wear; and decorative patterns. There are regular body painting festivals (held in warm weather one assumes). Chasing down links in the Wikipedia entry on body painting, I found Guido Daniele, who has made some extraordinary trompe-l’oeil hand-paintings photographed for use in advertising campaigns, found at  http://www.guidodaniele.com/hand-painting/handpaint-advertising.html.

I insist that painting, clothing, adorning, and mutilating the body, and using the body as a tool, be accounted for in any comprehensive theory about the nature and evolutionary origins of art.

Economic Growth is Obsolete

Modern economies are founded on growth. Without growth, there is stagnation, deflation, unemployment, bread lines and unrest. Liberals and conservatives agree on this, and only differ in their recipes for creating growth.

But aren’t there limits to growth? Can we continue to make and buy more stuff without running out of raw materials and places to dispose of waste?

“Limits to Growth,” published in 1972, used a simple but ingenious computer model that demonstrated the need to curb growth if we were to avoid catastrophic collapse. The book was ridiculed, as were several other books preaching the same gospel. The critics insisted that the limits are illusory; there will always be enough oil, farmland, water, and crucial mineral resources.  Our amazing technology will allow us to overcome any limit you name. After all, it has worked in the past, at least for the privileged minority.

Despite the simplicity of the model, it seems to have captured the essence, and history has tracked its “business as usual” prediction quite closely. Population growth is a prime example. When I was born, there were about 2 billion people on earth. By the time “Limits to Growth” was written, population had nearly doubled to four billion. Around 2023, it will double again, to 8 billion. And the high estimate by the UN has it doubling again by the end of the century. Not only that, but millions who once lived in poverty are moving into middle-class life styles, complete with cars and other luxuries.

Technology has made possible phenomenal growth, and most people in western democracies assume that we will continue to invent our way around natural limits. But this won’t work because major changes in technology take time and are not keeping pace with our increasingly unsustainable growth. For example, replacing fossil fuels is a century-long effort, so climate change is a given – the only issue on the table is how much climate change.

We rely on one “green revolution” after another to increase the yield of farmland, while at the same time losing farmland to development and soil depletion. Tropical forests are being cut to make new farmland, but tropical soils are thin and quickly depleted, and the consequences of exterminating the millions of species that live in or rely on tropical forests are completely unknown. Only 1% of the earth’s water is available for all human uses, and we are using nearly all of it. Water shortages are increasing globally.

We think of the global economy as a robust, well-integrated system that we understand and have under control. This is nonsense: the global economy is an uncontrolled experiment, the future of which is unpredictable. It may be a fragile affair in which the failure of a relatively minor component brings down the whole edifice. It is crucially dependent on honest government, which is in short supply everywhere except in western democracies. It is highly vulnerable to cyberterrorism and war. Its benefits are unevenly distributed, grotesquely so.

In short, there is clear evidence that we have reached or are about to reach limits to growth that we cannot overcome with technology. The obvious solution is to slow growth and spread existing wealth around so everyone has a fair share. Indeed, with regard to climate change, we need rapidly and dramatically to cut back on fossil fuel consumption. But we have yet to invent a global economy based on sustainable stasis, let alone on a reduction in consumption.

So what is in our near future? I think we will do what humans have always done, continue with business as usual, adjusting to new realities as they arise. Crises will develop at an accelerating pace, although when they will arise, what they will be and how they will unfold are unpredictable. This does not stop film makers and novelists from concocting terrifying scenarios.

The future is unpredictable except in one respect: it will not resemble the present for those of us living in western democracies. Not even close.

Authenticity – Part Two

Village in Pays de la Loire region, France
Photo of village in Pays de la Loire region, France

To probe more deeply into the concept of authenticity, I want to present three examples.

Example one: You are walking through a beautiful garden. Flowers are blooming, the trees are in leaf, the grass is green. You lean over to smell a flower and discover to your surprise that it is a highly convincing imitation made of plastic. Suspicious, you check the grass and the trees, and behold, they also are plastic. At a certain level of detail, consistency and continuity abruptly break down. Were the garden real, you could continue to drill down, verifying the authenticity of the environment at every level of detail.

Example two: You live in a Modernist house, with 1950’s modern furniture and decorations. It is a real gem, on everyone’s list of historic houses. You are well-off, and are driving your guests in your BMW to a fine restaurant, where again everything is coordinated and consistent – both your house and the restaurant are works of environmental art. The interior of your BMW is likewise well-designed, and you all step out of the vehicle into the restaurant, leaving the car with the valet. The experience is consistent and continuous. On the way to and from the restaurant, you pass through Typical Suburbia. Most of the buildings you see are pathetic imitations of something else. Behind the rusted and bent guardrails along the road lie abandoned paper cups, plastic bags and weeds. The roads are vast expanses of asphalt, and the vehicles on the roads are each things unto themselves, as a group without coordination or consistency.

The experience is consistent and continuous only because you have shut out most of the environment. Seen from the outside, the experience is profoundly discontinuous, uncoordinated and inconsistent except for the three environments you were able to cherry-pick out of the continuum. Where in the first example there was an abrupt end to the apparent authenticity as you drilled down in scale, here each of the designed elements – the house, the car and the restaurant – are  islands of order in a sea of chaos. You have to tune out everything except the private cocoons of good design that your high income allow you to enjoy. You must exercise selective attention because there are gaps in the environmental continuum

Example three: You are comparing a Model T with a modern SUV. The form of the Model T reflects separate parts each with a clear function: the passenger compartment, wide at the top and narrower at the bottom, just like the human form; the engine in a separate little house with fold-up doors on each side; the wheels, lights, fenders, running boards and spare tire all clearly articulated. Each function is either shrouded with its own skin, or is a separate element attached to the skin or supporting the whole ensemble. If you look at the car from underneath, you see more functional elements. The vehicle is all of a piece. Also, a dent here and there doesn’t spoil the effect, as the car is not trying to be perfect.

1919 Ford Model T Highboy Coupe
1919 Ford Model T Highboy Coupe

The SUV is a far more complex piece of machinery, but the entire vehicle except the wheels is shrouded with a single, perfect shell. While the shell does in some way reflect function its most striking characteristic is how smoothly the surfaces are blended into a perfect shell, one where the slightest scratch is noticeable and spoils the intended perfection. If you look at the car from underneath, you see something entirely different, a bewildering array of functional elements, entirely discontinuous with the perfect carapace above. As a Model T is to a steam locomotive, the SUV is to a diesel locomotive. Some kind of authenticity is lost between the first pair and the second, a third kind of discontinuity.

We routinely cherry-pick the elements of an object or event that we consider relevant to its significance. In the three examples, it seems that something is wrong with the criteria we use to separate the relevant from the accidental, the signal from the noise. So what constitutes a “right” set of criteria? You can’t consider all aspects of a situation to be relevant. To do so you would have to include the moon, social justice, biological evolution, animal rights, baseball stats – there really are no limits to the potentially relevant contexts. Clearly we have to make choices about which contexts are relevant and which aren’t. To do this, we need criteria.

This conundrum exposes a deeper level to the concept of authenticity. The authenticity of an object or event seems to be determined by the criteria used to establish relevance. They must in some way be “right”; the puzzle is figuring out what “right” means. I believe that if we can identify these criteria, we can learn a great deal about art in particular, and human experience in general.

The Evolution of Trumps

Everyone, and I mean everyone, is trying to trace the chain of circumstances that has led us to the ascendancy of the Ultimate Narcissist. Each of us will come up with a unique combination of causal forces and trends, and cite a unique set of historical precedents. I propose to follow ecologist William Rees’ lead and trace the phenomenon back to its origins in evolved human nature.

All life is founded on growth. A species will increase in number until reined in by its environment. Predators, disease, parasites, competition, food supply, climate, geology, natural disasters and many other factors work together to constrain a species from overrunning the earth. Remove an important constraint and the species will expand to take advantage of the new situation, until a new constraint kicks in. Animals live far longer in zoos than in the wild.

Humans have a combination of evolved traits that allow us to push aside one constraint after another, and an urge to do so. In the several million years in which our ancestors honed the integrated package of skills that make us so “successful,” we have evaded environmental constraints by the ingenious means of remodeling the environment.

Having carried our renovation project far past anything that could reasonably be called sustainable, we now have to pay the bills, which are coming in thick and fast, global warming being only one of a long list of debts past due.

Our response has been to continue worshiping at the altar of growth and progress, running up new debt as fast as we can. Naturally, this strategy is not working. To pay off our environmental debt, or at least keep from going further into debt, we need to cut back on our exploitation. This means deflating our economies, and as any economist will tell you, that is a disastrous course. Yet it is the only possible alternative; we should not be looking to economists for answers, because the whole science of economics is founded on exploiting the environment.

As Rees points out, we have over the last 70 years gone from being citizens, working together to get through WWII, to being consumers. The idea of giving up something for the sake of the common good has largely gone out of style. From our libertarian roots has sprouted a grotesque culture of acquisitiveness. We have far more freedom and property than the vast majority of the global population, yet we want more of each. We have become a nation of narcissists.

Enter the Ultimate Narcissist, He wraps up in his persona the aspirations of a people, we Americans, who have become dependent upon the privileges and comforts made possible by raping the earth and globally exploiting the weak. He is all about getting his, at anyone’s expense, and calls anyone a “loser” who doesn’t focus on getting theirs. We have to exclude the destitute because they will eat some of our pie.

Perhaps it seems odd that the people who are being exploited by oligarchs like Trump support this outspoken advocate of exploitation for personal gain, but as a friend pointed out to me, if you aspire to be an exploiter yourself, it is not surprising that you would support the privileges that come with exploitation. Trump is a great role model for a people who want it all.

And if you are as disgusted by Trump as I am, don’t get too comfortable. I trust if you are reading my blog that you believe in fairness and the equitable redistribution of wealth. Ask yourself what you would voluntarily give up in order to reduce your share to the global average. It would mean cutting down on your consumption of goods and services by a factor of four. What would you choose to save? Let’s start with Novocain and work our way down the list. Forget suburbia and cars, what about meat, toilet paper, clean water, air conditioning, knee replacements, a medicine cabinet full of pills, education, science, art? What about living like a Chinese family of five in a 400 SF apartment?

We have evolved into a nation of Trumps. He has cast off all pretense at fairness and preached the contemporary American ethic in its raw state. If you don’t like what you hear, come up with an alternative that doesn’t rely on the insanity of continued growth. I can’t do it, and I doubt if you can. As Pogo famously said on Earth Day, 1971, we have met the enemy and he is us.

More Sense on Senses

It appears that bacteria have over 100 sensing mechanisms. Quoting  [my underlining] http://www.angelfire.com/linux/vjtorley/senses.html

“According to John S. Parkinson, a professor of biology at the University of Utah, “most organisms – even bacteria – can sense sound, light, pressure, gravity and chemicals” (University of Utah, 2002). E. coli bacteria “can sense and respond to changes in temperature, osmolarity, pH, noxious chemicals, DNA-damaging agents, mineral abundance, energy sources, electron acceptors, metabolites, chemical signals from other bacteria, and parasites” (Meyers and Bull, 2002, p. 555). Bacteria are very sensitive to chemicals – for instance, E. coli bacteria have five different kinds of sensors which they use to detect food. As Di Primio, Muller and Lengeler (2000, pp. 4 – 5) explain, common bacteria like E. coli swim in chemical gradients towards attractants (e.g. glucose) or away from repellents (e.g. benzoate) – a phenomenon known as chemotaxis. Other bacteria display phototaxis and magnetotaxis, or movement in response to light and magnetic fields, respectively (Martin and Gordon, 2001, p. 219). Bacteria possess an elaborate chemosensory signaling pathway, which involves the phosphorylation (combination with phosphorus compounds) of a set of proteins in the cytoplasm of a bacterial cell (Blair, 1995, p. 489).

There are several philosophical questions relating to the sensitive capacities of bacteria. Should we call these capacities bona fide senses? For that matter, what are senses, anyway? Is there a distinction between sensing an object, and being sensitive to (or being affected by) it? And is the possession of senses by an organism a sufficient condition for its having perceptions (which, in common parlance, are mental states), or can an organism have senses without the capacity to have perceptions?”

The article continues with an in-depth philosophical discussion that is quite interesting but probably too abstruse for most readers – I didn’t have the patience to read it through. Is it worthwhile to “translate” obsolete ideas by Aristotle into modern terms, as does the author, or is this merely a source of confusion? You can decide by reading the post.

Bottom line, my comment that bacteria don’t have sense organs is incorrect. Whether they have perceptions is up for grabs, an issue that is addressed in the article.