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Category: Design

OF ZEN GARDENS AND MISO SOUP

Milan, 3 December 2016

Back from Kyoto, and still with a bad case of jet lag (it’s 4 am and my wife and I are sprawled on the living room couches, wide awake), it’s time to review the three weeks we spent in that city. Apart from the misery cause by the American presidential elections and the pleasure derived from teaching a course on sustainable industrialization to a group of eager youngsters not yet affected by the pessimism of old age, what else will I take back with me from my three weeks spent in Kyoto?

Ever since I first visited the city thirty years ago, Kyoto for me is first and foremost the place of Zen gardens. I have already written a paean to these rock gardens in a previous post, so I will not repeat myself. I will simply mention the pleasure I derived from visiting several rock gardens which I had not seen thirty years ago (or even five years ago, when we came for a brief visit from Beijing). My wife and I decided that our daughter, who came to visit us for Thanksgiving, just had to see a couple of these glorious creations: “he (or she) who has not seen a Zen garden has not lived”, to surely misquote someone famous. We took her to the gardens in Tofuku-ji Temple as well as those in Kennin-ji Temple, both at the foot of that range of hills which runs down Kyoto’s eastern edges and which is constellated with temples. The garden in Tofuku-ji was laid down a mere 75 years ago, in the last years of the 1930s. It gives one pause to think that these so very peaceful gardens were created when Japan was ramping up its war effort towards the disastrous conclusion of Hiroshima and Nagasaki five years later.

The garden was designed by Mirei Shigemori. This was his first major work and it made him famous (at least in the small world of landscape gardening). The work consists of four gardens surrounding the Abbot’s Hall. The largest, and best known, is the south garden.
tofukuji-south-garden-2
It is dominated by four clusters of massive rocks. Standing imposingly at one end of the garden, they represent the mythic, far-off isles of the immortals.
tofukuji-south-garden-1
Their shores are “washed” by a sea of raked white gravel, which leads the eye to five moss-covered mounds at the other end. These represent the five main temples in Kyoto of the Rinzai sect of Buddhism, one of whose temples is Tofuku-ji.
Unknown
This garden obviously has its roots in the design of the far more famous zen garden at Ryoan-ji.
ryoanji-garden
Shigemori’s departures from the classical zen garden style were far more radical in the other three smaller gardens surrounding the Abbot’s Hall. The north garden has a checkerboard pattern, with square paving stones embedded in moss, that gently fades off into randomness, thus drawing the eye to the stand of Japanese maples beyond.
tofukuji-north-garden
The west garden repeats the checkerboard motif, but this time with a dense array of square-cut azalea bushes.
tofukuji-west-garden
The small east garden departs from the usual use of rough stones, inserting instead seven truncated stone cylinders (recycled from the temple’s old outhouse) into the usual “sea” of raked gravel surrounded by moss. Shigemori set the pillars out like the stars of the Big Dipper, Seven Northern Stars in Japanese.
tofukuji-east-garden
These last three gardens caused much frothing at the mouth by the traditionalists but also drew much praise from the garden landscaping avant-garde. I leave it to readers to decide in which camp they want to be in. Meanwhile, I will move to the second zen garden which we visited with our daughter, the gardens in Kennin-ji. These gardens are a good deal more venerable, as befits the oldest Zen temple in Kyoto.

The same design of gardens surrounding the Abbot’s Hall is found here. We have here the main garden, where, in contrast to Tofuku-ji, the monk-designer allowed a fringe of vegetation along the far border of the garden.
kenninji-garden-1
On the other side of the Abbot’s Hall, we have a smaller garden that invites the visitor to step over it to a beckoning tea house.
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(unfortunately, the path is off-limits, but the determined visitor can reach the tea-house through a more circuitous set of stepping stones).

We have a moss garden enclosed between buildings and walkways.
kenninji-garden-3
Finally, squeezed in between several buildings, we have the small, compact “circle-triangle-square” garden
Kenninji Circle Triangle Square Garden
so-called because it is said that all things in the universe can be represented by these three forms (at the risk of being irreverent, though, I see the circle and square in the garden but I don’t see a triangle).

Switching gears dramatically, these three weeks in Kyoto also reanimated the love which my wife and I have for miso soup, that most Japanese of all soups.
miso-soup
Readers may think I lack gravitas turning in this way from the glories of Zen gardens to the humble miso soup, gentle handmaiden to the flashier main courses of countless Japanese meals. But I feel there is a strong affinity between the two: spare simplicity in the assemblage of the constituent elements, yet delivery of intense pleasure to the senses.

What is it about miso soup’s ingredients that give it that unique taste, to be found in no other soup? It is a question which I have asked myself every time I sip on its delights, yet it is only now, in my jet-lagged haze, that I turn to the Internet to find out.

The answer is the miso paste. It is this paste which, mixed with the traditional Japanese stock “dashi”, is at the heart of all miso soups. Other ingredients that are added, such as silky tofu cubes, finely chopped spring onions, and seaweed, are – if I may mix my culinary metaphors – merely cherries on the cake. Digging further, to my mind the magic of miso paste, what gives it that so very special taste, is the fungus Aspergillus oryzae. I should perhaps explain that miso paste is the product of a fermentation process; here we have the fermentation taking place the traditional way.
miso-fermentation-barrel
Our friend A. oryzae works its fermenting magic on a mash of soybeans and salt (to which other grains such as barley and rice are sometimes added). This is what the little critter looks like through a high-powered microscope.
miso-aspergillus
My internet searches have also turned up the interesting fact that there are many kinds of miso paste, depending on the length of fermentation. At the less fermented end of the spectrum, we have white miso, lighter in colour and taste, at the more fermented end, we have red miso, darker and with a stronger flavour, and we have different colourings in between.
miso-pastes
As one might imagine, there are regional preferences in the colour of one’s miso paste and, by extension, one’s miso soup. We must have been eating white miso soup since that is the preferred colour in Kyoto (while red miso soup is preferred in Tokyo, for instance).

After all this, my eyelids are beginning to droop. Maybe I’ll be able to get in a few hours of sleep before the new day dawns and have sweet dreams of visiting Kyoto once more. There are more Zen gardens to visit and more miso soups to try.

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Tofukuji-south garden-1: http://kyotofreeguide-kyotofreeguide.blogspot.it/2010/04/tofukuji-temple.html
Tofukuji-south garden-2: http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e3930.html
Tofukuji-south garden-3: https://www.artflakes.com/en/products/japan-kyoto-tofukuji-temple-landscape-garden-1
Ryoanji garden: http://www.123rf.com/photo_21419380_zen-garden-in-ryoanji-temple.html
Tofukuji-north garden: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Toufuku-ji_hojyo7.JPG
Tofukuji-west garden: http://www.panoramio.com/photo/121832697
Tofukuji east garden: http://www.panoramio.com/photo/121832672
Kenninji gardens-1: http://www.yurukaze.com/tag/kennin-ji/
Kenninji gardens-2: mine
Kenninji gardens-3: http://www.wa-pedia.com/japan-guide/kenninji_kyoto.shtml
Kenninji gardens-4: http://asian-images.photoshelter.com/image/I0000NbQQcA_e4yM
Miso soup: https://i.ytimg.com/vi/lH7pgsnyGrI/maxresdefault.jpg
Aspergillus oryzae: https://sites.google.com/site/microbiologiecours/support-de-cours/mycologie
Miso pastes : http://www.thekitchn.com/the-best-type-of-miso-for-miso-soup-tips-from-the-kitchn-215117

POLITICALLY-CHARGED PUBLIC ART

Milan, 4 November 2016

There is a quiet square not too far from where my wife and I live in Milan which goes by the name of Piazza Affari. As the name suggests, this is meant to be the pulsating business and financial centre of Milan. That was certainly the idea when the square was fashioned back in the early 1930s by demolishing a whole block of buildings in front of the just completed stock exchange, the Palazzo Mezzanotte.
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This quite handsome building clad in white travertine is often considered “typical” Fascist architecture because of when it was constructed, but in truth it is actually a nice exemplar of the Italian architecture of the turn of the century, most famously exemplified by Milan’s main train station.
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Another building opposite the stock exchange, finished in 1939, closed off the new square.
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Well, the war came and went, this corner of Milan survived the intense Allied bombing of the city, Fascism fell, and life went on. Then, in 2011, as part of a plan to make Milan a centre of contemporary art, the-then municipal government wanted to hold an exhibition of the works of Maurizio Cattelan, a famous Italian contemporary sculptor well known for satirical sculptures. As part of the deal, the city commissioned an outdoor work from the artist. After some back and forth, it was decided to place this piece in Piazza Affari and Cattelan came up with this.
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Of course, everyone immediately decided that the artist was giving the finger to Italy’s financial sector – this was a few years after the near meltdown of the banking sector worldwide, whose impacts on the Italian economy were then being felt (and continue to be felt). The denizens of the stock exchange hated it, everyone else loved it. What was meant to be a temporary exhibition has turned out to be permanent. It has been pointed out, and the photo above shows it clearly, that the hand is not actually giving the finger to the stock exchange but, if anything, to the anonymous building on the other side of the square. And the artist himself has said that the sculpture was actually a commentary on the fall of Fascism – some complicated explanation to the effect that the hand really represents the Fascist salute, and the chopped-off fingers represent the fall of Fascism; its positioning in front of a building seen as Fascist is what links it to Fascism. Others have commented that this finely sculpted hand (look at those veins!) in lovely white marble, in a square with its vaguely Roman look (look at those arcades attached to the 1939 building), reminds them of a De Chirico painting.
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None of this matters. What is important is what people think. And people think the finger is being given to all those goddamned bankers who screwed us all over, and they cheer the artist on.

Statuary in public places has always excited intense emotions. Staying in the world of white marble, consider the statue of the naked Alison Lapper, a British artist born without arms and only stubs of legs, and eight months pregnant when the statue was made.
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In 2005, this statue was placed as a temporary exhibit on the fourth plinth at Trafalgar Square in London, which has been empty ever since the square received its current look back in the 1830s.
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Many people hated it (because it was ugly; did those who said this realize the judgement they were passing on handicapped people?), many people loved it (because of its optimistic message about the handicapped and because it brought handicapped people more into the mainstream). A much larger replica was used in the opening ceremonies of the 2012 London Paralympic Games.
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But what about that granddaddy of white marble statuary, Michelangelo’s David?
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(another statue, I note in passing, with lovely hands)
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Today, we look at it simply as a glorious work of art, but at the time of its unveiling it was also a highly charged political statement. Already, David had a special place in the heart of the Florentines. They identified with the puny boy who destroyed the huge, nasty Goliath (seen to represent Rome, the French, the Holy Roman Emperor, or any other power threatening it at any particular moment in time). A committee of notable artists, including Da Vinci and Botticelli, was charged with deciding on its emplacement. They chose to have it stand in Piazza Signoria, at such an angle that the statue glared defiantly towards Rome.
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A statue whose unveiling in 1992 had particular resonance for me was that of Sir Arthur “Bomber” Harris, commander-in-chief during the Second World War of Britain’s Bomber Command.

As the picture shows, it is the typical statue of some Worthy Person which dots every public space in Europe, nothing terribly exciting artistically. But Bomber Command was the group responsible for the so-called area bombing during the War which wiped out entire German cities, many of no military value. Dresden is perhaps the best known.
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There are many people, and I include myself among them, who believe that these bombings were a crime against humanity, so I have difficulty feeling any disapproval for the person who did this to Harris’s statue.
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To be fair to Harris, he was not the only person in high circles (Winston Churchill included) who thought that area bombing was a good idea, but he implemented the plan with particular relish.

The placement of politically-charged art in public spaces continues. Banksy’s painting in the Calais “Jungle” of Steve Jobs as an immigrant trying to get in shows this.

In a rare statement on any of his art, Banksy commented that he wanted to remind people of the value of immigrants. If Jobs’s father, an immigrant from Homs in Syria, hadn’t been let into the US we wouldn’t have Apple. In this day and age of heated debates, especially in Europe, about refugees and how many to let in, Banksy has very publicly taken sides. It’s a pity that his high mindedness has been subverted, first by an entrepreneurial inhabitant of the Jungle demanding to be paid 5 euros to view the painting and then by a nihilistic vandalizing of the painting.
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I presume that the vandalizer was doing no more than celebrating The Clash’s third album. Such is life.

Let’s see what this year will bring us in politically-charged statuary.

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Palazzo Mezzanote: http://www.newsly.it/braxit-ultime-notizie-borse-europee-in-rialzo-scommettono-sul-si-1
Stazione centrale: http://www.milanoguida.com/visite-guidate/altri-monumenti-milano/stazione-centrale-milano/
Palazzo on other side: https://ripullulailfrangente.wordpress.com/2012/08/24/ancora-per-milano-al-mattino-presto-targhe/
Il dito: http://www.manageronline.it/articoli/vedi/3359/il-dito-medio-in-piazza-affari/
Giorgio de Chirico: http://www.beniculturali.it/mibac/export/MiBAC/sito-MiBAC/Contenuti/MibacUnif/Eventi/visualizza_asset.html_1741131230.html
Alison Lapper statue: http://www.arupassociates.com/en/projects/trafalgar-square-fourth-plinth/
Alison Lapper statue close-up: http://albertis-window.com/2014/01/
Alison Lapper statue Paralympic Games: http://www.goodtoknow.co.uk/wellbeing/galleries/34626/london-2012-paralympic-games/41
David: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/430234570629286662/
David’s hand: http://www.accademia.org/explore-museum/artworks/michelangelos-david/
David’s head: https://www.pinterest.com/almetrami/renaissance-david/
Sir Arthur Harris: http://www.fotolibra.com/gallery/1172664/sir-arthur-harris/
Dresden bombed: http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/dresden-bombing-70th-anniversary-interactive-then-now-photos-show-scale-destruction-1487817
Harris statue defaced: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/debate/article-2166966/PETER-HITCHENS-The-heroes-Bomber-Command-deserve-memorial–unlike-butcher-led-them.html
Banksy’s Steve Jobs: http://edition.cnn.com/2015/12/11/europe/banksy-steve-jobs-graffiti/
Banksy’s Steve Jobs defaced: http://www.zeroviolenza.it/component/k2/item/74240-alto-4-metri-e-lungo-un-chilometro-il-nuovo-muro-antimigranti-è-a-calais

BLOODY WIRES!

Bangkok, 10 August 2016

There was a time, not that long ago it seems to me, when we did not have all these electronic gizmos lying around the house. Now we suffocate in them. Between the two of us, my wife and I have two phones, one smart and one not smart at all, two tablets, one portable computer, one thingy that gives my wife her wifi (I use my phone’s hot spot), one power pack, one flat-screen TV, and one radio-cum-CD player. I’ll also throw in our two electric toothbrushes. I’m sure we are quite modest in our e-outlay. For instance, neither of us has ever had an iPod or equivalent blasting music in our ears through those tiny ear phones which are squeezed into your ears and guaranteed to make them ache after five minutes (mine certainly do). Nor have we ever had a game console with which to pulverize, mutilate, and generally annihilate the human race. Nevertheless, even with this very modest e-inventory, we suffer from a terrible problems: wires.

The biggest problem with all these e-products is that their batteries need recharging. So our living room floor is festooned with electric wires snaking this way and that, plugged into every available socket. In fact, since we don’t have that many sockets, we have to use several power strips, which add more wires to the confusion. And the worst of is that, since all these damned products seem to need recharging all the damned time, we drag a handful of wires and one or two power strips behind us when we move from the table to the couch.
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I have to say, when I’m dragging my wires and their attached e-products around I feel like Marley’s ghost when he comes to frighten the bejeezus out of Scrooge on Christmas Eve.
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“The bells ceased as they had begun, together. They were succeeded by a clanking noise, deep down below; as if some person were dragging a heavy chain over the casks in the wine merchant’s cellar. … The cellar-door flew open with a booming sound, and then he heard the noise much louder, on the floors below; then coming up the stairs; then coming straight towards his door. … “It’s humbug still!” said Scrooge. “I won’t believe it.” His colour changed though, when, without a pause, it came on through the heavy door, and passed into the room before his eyes. … The same face: the very same. Marley in his pigtail, usual waistcoat, tights and boots; … The chain he drew was clasped about his middle. It was long, and wound about him like a tail; and it was made (for Scrooge observed it closely) of cash-boxes, keys, padlocks, ledgers, deeds, and heavy purses wrought in steel.”

Well, as you might imagine, I am not the only one to be irritated by this bloody nuisance of wires. Some of my readers may well feel the same wire-induced irritation. And of course the private sector, ever alert to new markets, has moved in. Companies have designed wireless chargers, which use induction coils to produce an electromagnetic field, which in turn can charge batteries. Don’t ask me anything more; I never understood electro stuff. Luckily, these new products can look pretty cool
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although I do note that while there may be no wire between charger and e-product, there must be a wire between charger and wall socket – otherwise, how does it get the electricity which it so generously passes to the mobile, tablet, or what have you?

So other companies have come up with the idea of inserting the wireless charger into products which already have wires. Clever, no? For instance, take my favourite furniture shop, IKEA. “Our range of wireless chargers blend in beautifully with your home” their catalogue proclaims, “and can be placed where you need them the most. All without having to chase after outlets or hide messy cables.” Words after my heart! See, for instance, this clever lamp, which has a charger built into its base. And which has won some design award to boot.
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IKEA has various other lamps as well as what I take to be bedside tables with these built-in chargers.
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In case my readers suspect me of having shares in IKEA, I hastily add that there are many other furniture companies out there offering similar solutions. My crystal ball tells me that this is the future.

But then there is one thing that’s worrying me. Aren’t all these wireless chargers using the same technology as microwave ovens? Like I said, I don’t understand all this electro stuff, but it seems to me to be more or less the same. In which case, a houseful of wireless chargers will slowly be cooking us. My phone is already cooking my brain.

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______________________
Marley’s ghost, by Alec Guinness: http://dickensblog.typepad.com/dickensblog/2013/07/picspam-sir-alec-guinness-dickensian.html
RIGGAD lamp: http://www.ikea.com/us/en/catalog/categories/departments/wireless_charging/
Other furniture with chargers: http://www.ikea.com/us/en/catalog/categories/departments/wireless_charging/
Phone cooking brain: http://www.popsci.com/science/article/2010-02/disconnected

MIRROR, MIRROR, ON THE WALL

Bangkok, 28 February 2016

Every morning, I stare at myself in the mirror as I shave, a ritual which has enslaved me these past forty odd years. And I stare at myself in the mirror as I brush my hair, or brush my teeth, or – more lately – inspect that suspicious mark on my face (is it melanoma?). And I watch as the face which stares back at me grows rounder and more creased, as the hairline recedes and the temples grow greyer, as the lips thin with the loss of back teeth, as the skin begins to sag under my chin.

I grow old, the mirror remorselessly reminds me every day.

I can’t escape my reflection. It follows me everywhere I go, staring back at me from all the mirrors which we have scattered with wild abandon over our urban landscapes: the bars, the restaurants, the public toilets, the elevators, the shops, the lobbies, … My reflection even beckons to me from the smooth, shiny sheathing and coated windows of our fancy modern buildings.

It was not always so. There was a time, not so long ago in the great arc of human history, when we hardly ever saw our own faces. We saw the faces of others: our mothers, our fathers, our siblings, our tribe, our village, and the few strangers who came from the other side of the mountain and passed through. From time to time, when drinking in a still pool, we would have seen a tremulous reflection staring back at us. But it’s not easy to see one’s reflection in water. Water bodies have this infuriating habit of giving a beautiful reflection of things far away but of being blankly clear at one’s feet.

Numa and Rainbow Peaks Reflecting in Bowman Lake, Montana

This young girl has managed to capture her watery reflection quite well

reflection in water

but I think this picture is more typical of what most of us see when we peer into water.

reflection in a puddle

That’s why I’ve never really understood the legend of Narcissus, the beautiful boy who caught sight of his reflection in a pool, fell in love with it, and died at the pool’s edge unable to drag himself away.

Narcissus-Caravaggio

What reflection could he possibly have been so enamoured with? In my experiments in the kitchen with various pots and pans of different colours, the best reflection I got was from a black frying pan

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and even that reflection was, as readers can see, murky in the extreme. How could anyone, however beautiful he or she may have been, have fallen in love with this evanescent reflection? Perhaps the original teller of the tale had seen a reflection of a person in a dark pool or vase from a distance, like this photographer has

reflections in a bowl of water

and invented the story around that.

Be that as it may, eventually our ancestors found other ways to see themselves. Obsidian, that beautiful, black, glassy material, product of volcanic activity

imagewas used in the first attempts at non-aqueous mirrors, in Turkey. The country was famous in the pre-metallurgical era for its obsidian, which could be used to make razor-sharp arrow heads – such arrow heads have been found hundreds if not thousands of kilometres away from the mother lode in Anatolia. But large obsidian pieces could also be split open and the faces given a high polish to act as a mirror.

obsidian mirror

Obsidian may be beautiful, but it gives a dark reflection, almost as dark as the water in my frying pan. I am reminded of St. Paul’s famous phrase in his first letter to the Corinthians, “For now we see through a glass, darkly”.

The metallurgical age brought us one step closer to seeing ourselves, in polished copper or bronze mirrors, like this Egyptian copper mirror.

copper mirror egyptian

Copper mirrors would have given reddish reflections like those we see in highly polished copper pans, such as this

reflections in a copper potor this.

reflections in a copper pan

(If nothing else, both photos show the need for a uniformly flat surface for a good result …)

The Chinese especially made mirrors out of polished bronze. These would have given yellowish reflections, like this one

bronze mirror-2

or this one, from a Japanese bronze mirror.

bronze mirror

Mirrors such as these were very expensive – indeed, the Chinese turned the backs of their mirrors into admirable works of art, such as this 9th Century one from the Tang Dynasty with its admirably carved dragon.

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So only the rich, the ancient world’s one-percenters, could afford to peer – curiously, vainly, or dolefully – at their reflection. The man and woman on the street still could only see their reflection in water.

It seems that it was the Egyptians who first thought of coating glass with metal to make glass mirrors, but their reflectivity was poor. As for the Romans, Pliny the Elder mentioned mirrors where gold leaf was applied to glass. I don’t know if any such mirror has survived the ravages of time, I certainly didn’t find a trace of one on the Internet. But very fancy gold-plated mirrors such as the one in this photo are now made, for high-tech applications.

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I suppose a bleary-eyed Roman plutocrat staring at himself in his gold-plated glass mirror after a night of orgies would have caught such a yellowing reflection as this of his face.

It is the Venetians we have to thank – or curse – for bringing us the modern silvered mirror, which finally allowed humanity to see its own reflection in glorious, embarrassing, or painful technicolour. The glass-makers of Murano figured out a way of making flat – and clear – glass as well as depositing a thin coating of silver on the back of it (my professional self cannot but help notice that they used a silver-mercury amalgam to do this; the mercury inevitably sickened and killed off a good number of Murano mirror-makers – an interesting twist to the French saying “il faut souffrir pour être belle”, “one must suffer to be beautiful”, which here becomes “you suffer, and I admire my beauty”). Once again, it was initially the one-percenters of the European courts who enjoyed – or suffered from – a much clearer reflection of themselves. Venetian glass mirrors such as this one were worth a king’s ransom.

old venetian mirror in good shape

The French one-percenters couldn’t stand the idea that they were sending so much of their wealth southwards to the misbegotten Venetians for glass mirrors. They tried mightily to worm the secrets of mirror-making out of Murano. But La Serenissima, fully appreciating the gold mine they were sitting on, passed draconian laws forbidding these secrets from leaving the lagoon. Eventually, though, the French suborned a group of Venetian mirror-makers, persuading them to bolt from the lagoon and set up shop in the St. Gobain works. Among many other things, this gave us the Hall of Mirrors at the palace at Versailles.

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This hall has impassively reflected the fun and games of the French monarchy, but also two crucial moments in recent European history: the declaration of the German Empire in 1871 after the Prussians trounced the French in the Franco-Prussian War

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and the signing of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 between the Allies and the new-born German democracy

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that humiliating “diktat of Versailles” which Hitler used to such good effect in his rise to power.

Alas! The silvering process which the Venetians invented, and the French copied, did not last forever. With time, it would crack, it would peel, it would dull, so that reflections would become evanescent once more. How many old houses contain mirrors like this one!

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Even our apartment in Milan holds a mirror where Time has inserted its bony fingers into the silvering and has started to strip pieces off.

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Like my face, mirrors age. But as men have found ways of making faces last longer, so have they found ways to make silvered mirrors that last longer and reflect better. And through the genius of industrialization they have found ways to make these much better mirrors much cheaper, so that 99-percenters like me can also stare, once vainly and now despairingly, at the reflection of our crumbling selves.

I need to escape from my reflection. My wife and I could have ourselves shipwrecked on some remote islet in the Pacific Ocean. Yet even there, I fear that I would find a shard of mirror on the beach, washed up together with all the plastic bottles and other flotsam and jetsam of our consumeristic life that now fill up our oceans.

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Reflections in a lake: http://cdn.c.photoshelter.com/img-get2/I0000WnV35_OekPk/fit=1000×750/Numa-and-Rainbow-Peaks-Reflecting-in-Bowman-Lake.jpg (in http://bretedge.photoshelter.com/image/I0000WnV35_OekPk)

Reflection in water: http://www.aheadworld.org/wp-content/gallery/reflection-in-the-water/bellareflectionwater-1.jpg (in http://www.aheadworld.org/2014/07/15/reflection-in-the-water/)

Reflection in a puddle: http://www.nambya.com/wp-content/uploads/image6.jpg (in http://www.nambya.com/gallery/photography/image-7/)

Narcissus by Caravaggio: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Narcissus_%28mythology%29#/media/File:Narcissus-Caravaggio_%281594-96%29_edited.jpg (in https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Narcissus_%28mythology%29)

Reflection in a black pan: my photo

Reflection in a bowl of water: http://inapcache.boston.com/universal/site_graphics/blogs/bigpicture/reflections/bp12.jpg (in http://www.boston.com/bigpicture/2012/02/photo_reflections.html)

Chunk of obsidian: https://www.thinglink.com/scene/504686617127026690

Obsidian mirror: https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/736x/a0/77/4e/a0774e9d5c812c328852a4850ea59899.jpg

Egyptian copper mirror: https://assets.paddle8.com/510/266/21339/21339-1380672291-Coburn-Item%2033-xl.jpg (in https://paddle8.com/work/egyptian/21339-hand-mirror)

Reflection in a copper pot: http://www.jeffclaassen.com/photos/2013/11/copper_pot_05.jpg ( in http://jeffclaassen.com/blog/2013/11/copper-pot-selfies-in-the-kitchen-after-dinner/)

Reflection in a copper pot-2: http://www.jeffclaassen.com/photos/2013/11/copper_pot_02.jpg (in http://jeffclaassen.com/blog/2013/11/copper-pot-selfies-in-the-kitchen-after-dinner/)

Reflection in a copper pan: https://40.media.tumblr.com/e295593980f36d1411e869333c84b63f/tumblr_mgbmbnhFJl1rjg7f0o1_500.jpg (in https://www.tumblr.com/search/loppapeysa)

Reflection in a Chinese bronze mirror: https://c1.staticflickr.com/3/2601/3810835438_947331566d_b.jpg (in https://www.flickr.com/photos/chrisckemp/3810835438)

Reflection in a Japanese bronze mirror: http://1.bp.blogspot.com/_WxoUP_Y9N1A/RysHFDtbP1I/AAAAAAAAADo/smZF2ussZLo/s320/te-kagami2.JPG (in https://kgtou.wordpress.com/2007/11/02/te-kagami-hand-mirror/)

Chinese mirror – back: https://www.flickr.com/photos/asianart/405662049

Mirror coated with gold: http://www.epner.com/processes-and-products/laser-gold/

Old Venetian mirror in good shape: http://www.antiquario-dellapiana.it/esposizione-antiquariato-alba/dipinti-antichi/

Galerie des Glaces: http://www.historylines.net/history/17th_cent/versailles.html

Proclamation of the German Empire: https://fr.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Galerie_des_Glaces

Signing of the Versailles Treaty with Germany: https://fr.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Galerie_des_Glaces

Old Venetian mirror in bad shape: http://www.juliamarkert.com/galleria-riproduzioni-cornici-antiche-firenze/cornici-antiche-firenze/specchio-veneziano/

Reflection in Milan mirror: my photo

 

SPADES, CLUBS, HEARTS, DIAMONDS

Bangkok, 8 January 2016

In a previous post, I sketched out a rough agenda for my retirement. I think my wife was pleased with it. But she does have certain anxieties about this upcoming event. She has recently been reading about some Japanese syndrome called Retired Husbands Syndrome which attacks Japanese housewives. Suddenly, this guy whom you’ve hardly seen in the last 40 years – being a good Salaryman, he’s been leaving the house at 6 am and not getting home till midnight – is now constantly hanging around, getting in your way, messing up your routines, and expecting you to do things for him. Not unnaturally, the stress levels rocket up. While we’ve maintained a more balanced lifestyle, she does have fears of me moping around the house, lounging around on the sofa, eating natchos and watching TV all day. This dystopian view of hers is not helped by a number of films we’ve seen recently, describing exactly this situation. Nor is it helped by my fondness (my wife thinks more obsession) for playing Spider Solitaire on my iPad. She’s afraid that come retirement all I’ll do all day is compulsively play Spider Solitaire, with a little Freecell on the side.

It is true that I tend to play the game whenever I have a spare moment. I do admit that it can get a little out of hand. But I’m sure it’s good for my aging brain to carefully plot my strategy for getting the cards out. And those little electronic cards, with their glossy black spades and clubs and glowing red diamonds and hearts, and kingly Kings and queenly Queens and knavish Jacks, are really very pretty.
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I was thinking about their prettiness the other day during a Spider Solitaire game, and when it became clear that I was dribbling towards defeat I decided to quit and do a little research on the history of playing cards, principally to understand where the suit design of hearts, diamonds, spades, and clubs originally came from. I was very pleased that I did so, because I discovered that what we have here is yet another example of the Great East-West Exchange which took place along the Silk Road and other trade routes that once criss-crossed the Eurasian continent. Of course, most of what was exchanged was traditional goods, but ideas also flowed along these routes. So did less obvious things, like the the willow tree and the pomegranate, both of which I’ve had occasion to write about in the past. Now I can with pleasure write about a third such item, playing cards.

Our story starts in China. Some time in the Tang Dynasty, around the 7th-8th Century, it seems that someone in the Imperial Court came up with the idea of a pack of playing cards, divided into four suits. The suits were Coins, Strings of (1,000) coins, Myriads of strings (10,000), and Tens of myriads. Like our modern cards, each suit contained cards with different numbers of pips. Here we have a Three of Coins and a Three of Strings-of-coins.
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These packs also included face cards, like this one from the Ming dynasty.
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These ‘chi-pai’, which is Chinese for playing cards, are still in use. This next photo shows the cards from a three-suited variant. Note how the design of the suits became highly stylized – this is important for our story.
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I’ve no idea what games exactly were played with these cards back in Tang Dynasty times, I’m not sure anyone knows, and actually it’s not important for our story. What is important is that the use of cards spread westward. This could have happened through trade; I can imagine Chinese merchants whipping out a pack of cards to while away their down time in the caravanserai that dotted the Silk Road.
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Alternatively, it could have happened through conquest, with conquering soldiers picking up new habits from the conquered. In this case, the Mongols, who conquered China in the 13th Century, seem a very good candidate. At its height, the Mongol Empire stretched from Korea to Ukraine.
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Any new fads picked up by Mongol troops in China could have spread, through many an evening around soldiers’ camp fires, all the way to Kiev.

I don’t think the two diffusion mechanisms are necessarily exclusive. I could imagine that the Mongol conquest also amplified diffusion of card playing through trade. The two maps above superimpose quite well, and in fact the period of the Mongol Empire brought political stability to Asia which in turn encouraged a surge of trade along the Silk Road.

Whichever way, Chinese playing cards diffused westward. Some time in the 13th-14th Century, maybe earlier, so-called Ganjifa playing cards started being used in Persia. The etymology of Ganjifa is uncertain. Some see its root in the Persian word gunj, which connotes treasure, treasury, or money, and suggest that this connects them to the money-suited Chinese playing cards. Others see a more elaborate etymology, proposing that Ganjifa is actually a corruption of ‘han-chi-pai’, or ‘Chinese playing cards’. In this case, there would be a very clear line of descent from China. In any event, variants of Ganjifa playing cards began to be used throughout the Muslim world, as well as in India (brought there in the saddle bags of the Mughal conquerors). What interests us most is the variant used by the Mamluk in Egypt.

The Egyptian Mamluk were an interesting bunch of people. Initially, they were slave soldiers recruited by the Ayyubid dynasty. For the most part, they were drawn from the Cumans-Kipchaks, a nomadic group who controlled the steppes north of the Black Sea. They were conquered by the Mongols and then absorbed into the Mongol Empire as the Golden Horde. Some time in the 13th Century, the Mamluk slave-soldiers kicked the Ayyubids out and reigned in their place. This happy state of affairs continued until they were in turn defeated by the Ottomans and their territories subsumed into the Ottoman Empire. Luckily for them, the Ottomans kept them on as governors of Egypt.

Perhaps because of their Mongol connection, or in some other way, the Mamluk picked up this new fad of card playing and brought it to Egypt some time in the 14th Century. What is of interest to us here is the fact that Mamluk packs of cards had four suits: Coins, Polo-sticks (the Mamluks were great polo players), Cups, and Swords. In addition, each suit had three face cards, the king, the first vizir, and the second vizir. Some clever people, who know more about the history of playing cards than I do, see a link between these four suits and those used in Chinese playing cards. Their thinking goes as follows. There is no problem in seeing the Mamluk Coin suit being derived from the Chinese Coin suit, that’s an easy equivalence to envisage. After that, it gets trickier. The clever people propose that the Chinese String-of-coins suit was transformed into the Mamluk Polo-stick suit, on the grounds that a String-of-coins pip could easily be misinterpreted as a stick to those unfamiliar with this very Chinese way of dealing with coins. It is true that the String-of-coins suit in the photo of Chinese playing cards above has been so stylized as to look stick-like. Then the clever people suggest that the Chinese Myriad-of-strings suit became the Mamluk cup suit, on the grounds that the Chinese character for myriad, 万, which was often used as a sort of pip, was simply inverted by the Mamluks, at which point it does indeed look cup-like. Finally, the clever people suggest that the Chinese Tens-of-myriads suit, where the Chinese numeral for ten, 十, was often used as the pip, was simply interpreted as a sword by the Mamluk and so gave rise to their suit of Swords. The ice over which we have been scrabbling these last few sentences is indeed thin, but the romantic in me is willing to believe this wonderful story of Central Asians scratching their heads over these strange-looking cards which had come all the way from China and giving their own interpretations to the drawings on them. To enliven all this text, I throw in here a photo of one of the rare Mamluk playing cards to have survived, a Six of Coins, found in Istanbul’s Topkapi palace.
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The next leg of our journey is somewhat easier to envisage, the transit of the Mamluk playing cards to Italy. I’m guessing that Venice was the entry point, although there could have been more than one. Until the Portuguese rounded the Cape of Good Hope and made for the Spice Islands, most of the spices which Europeans lusted for entered Europe through Venice, which in turn picked them up in Egypt. In addition to picking up spices, I can imagine Venetian sailors and merchants picking up packs of Mamluk playing cards to while away the long journeys back to Venice. Once in Italy, the use of playing cards spread rapidly, with each region having its own particularities. Here, for instance, is a pack of cards from Bergamo.
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Italian playing cards basically adopted the Mamluk suits, except that they changed Polo-sticks to Clubs – polo was an unknown game in Europe at that time and I suppose the polo-sticks looked club-like to the Italians. They also adopted the idea of three face cards per suit but Europeanized them into king, upper marshal, and lower marshal.

There followed a fairly rapid diffusion of playing cards throughout Europe as the craze for card playing caught on. The Southern Europeans – Spain and Portugal – kept to the Italian design for their suits, with some minor modifications. The Northern Europeans instead experimented with a lot of different suit designs. Given the aristocratic background of many players, the suits were often hunting-themed like this pack from Flanders.
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Through the newfangled technology of printing, in which they were leaders, and through which they were the first to produce cheap packs of cards, the German lands popularized the use of the following suits:
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Personally, I don’t see much connection between these suits and the Italian versions. I think the Germans just used their fantasy. In any event, here are some old German playing cards with suits of Bells and of Acorns.
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Not to be outdone, the French came up with a somewhat different set of suits.
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The Hearts suit was taken as-is from the German suits. The Spades suit seems to be a slight modification of the German Leaf suit. The Clubs suit could be considered a geometric transformation of the Acorns suit – the sides of the acorn shell pulled out, the acorn itself shortened. The circular Bells suit of the Germans was replaced by a different shape, the diamond. As the cards above show, the French also introduced Queens, who displaced the upper marshal.

The French suits have since become those most used worldwide. Why that should be is not completely clear to me. I think it probably has something to do with the fact that the French suits are easier to read; I would have got really confused using those German cards I show above – “wait, is that an Eight of Acorns I have in my hand, or a Nine?” Or perhaps it was because the French were the arbiters of good taste in Europe until World War I. Or perhaps it was because the British adopted the French suits and happened to become the most powerful country in the world with the biggest colonial Empire, which allowed them to impose their choice of card suits and card games on their colonial subjects. Or perhaps it was because the Americans, who took over the title of the most powerful nation, followed them in choosing French suits for their playing cards. For any or all of these reasons, or maybe others again, French suits now stare up at me from my games of Spider Solitaire and Freecell.

Well, now that I’ve figured all that out, I can go back to what I was doing and actually win my Spider Solitaire game.

____________________
Old Chinese cards, coins and strings of coins: http://www.gamesmuseum.uwaterloo.ca/Archives/Wilkinson/Wilkinson.html
Old Chinese cards, face card: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Playing_card
Chi-pai three-suited cards: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chinese_playing_cards#Money-suited_cards
Silk Road: http://archive.silkroadproject.org/tabid/177/defaul.aspx
Mongol Empire: https://mapcollection.wordpress.com/2012/06/27/the-mongol-empire/
Mamluk card: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Playing_card#Egypt
Bergsmasche deck: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Italian_playing_cards#/media/File%3ACarte_bergamasche.jpg
Flemish hunting deck: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flemish_Hunting_Deck
German suites: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/German_playing_cards
Old German playing cards, acorn: http://www.spielkarten24.de/flohm.htm
Old German playing cars, bells: http://deerbe.com/unt/59680-___alte_spielkarten_playing_cards_dondorf_301_deutsche_spielkarte_1868___.html
Old French playing cards: http://www.culture.gouv.fr/public/mistral/joconde_fr?ACTION=CHERCHER&FIELD_98=AUTR&VALUE_98=BERGERET%20Pierre%20Nolasque&DOM=All&REL_SPECIFIC=1

WORLD TRADE CENTER

31 December 2015

Two years ago, when we were last in New York, we visited Ground Zero and the newly created Memorial to the victims of 9/11. Several days ago, during our current New York stay, we decided to go back to see how things have moved on.

Well, I’m glad to report that One World Trade Center is finally finished. I read up the back story to the development of the overall master plan for the area as well as for the design of the individual buildings; a veritable Shakespearean drama, with super egos confronting each other in dramatic showdowns, stabbing each other in the back, making sonorous declarations to the press, and otherwise carrying on like children in kindergarten. It’s a wonder that anything got done at all.
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Rising serenely above all this human mayhem, WTC 1 is a very lovely, glass-sheathed building. As readers can see in the photo below, the corners have been severely shaved back. I wouldn’t know how to describe the geometrical shenanigans going on here, so I simply quote a line from the building’s entry in Wikipedia: “from the 20th floor upwards, the square edges of the tower’s cubic base are chamfered back, shaping the building into eight tall isosceles triangles, or an elongated square antiprism”. However you describe it, the effect is pretty cool.
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WTC 2 is lagging behind. After having gone through a complete redesign, it is now being built, with a planned completion date of 2020. It should look like this once it is finished – a set of cubes stacked somewhat untidily one on top of the other.
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Personally, I’m not sure I will like this building. Something about those poorly stacked cubes disturbs my sensibilities. But I’m willing to be convinced once 2020 rolls around.

I will skip over WTCs 3, 4, 5 and 7 (WTC 6 seems to have disappeared from the roster in the new master plan), although I would draw readers’ attention to WTC 4, finished a few years ago and a very handsome building indeed. I want to focus instead on the Transportation Hub, which is a grand name for the entry to the subway lines running under the site. This, I have to say, is a rather strange-looking structure.
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When I first caught sight of it, from the side, I was powerfully reminded of photos that came out in the immediate aftermath of September 11, showing the jagged remains of the outer sheathing of the old WTC 1 and 2 buildings which had come crashing to the ground.
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I don’t know if that was also on the mind of the Hub’s designer, the Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava. In his public pronouncements, he has talked rather about it being like a bird flying out of a hand. It certainly has a bird-like quality from the back, although commentators have suggested a more stegosaurus-like look, which as the photo above shows is certainly true from the front. For those readers who may not be familiar with their dinosaurs I throw in a picture here of a reconstructed stegosaurus.
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The similarity is even more striking when you consider a stegosaurus skeleton.
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Frankly, I’m not completely sure how well this piece of design will withstand the test of time. Calatrava’s other design for the new World Trade Centre, the rebuilding of the tiny Orthodox Church of St. Nicholas which got flattened in the maelstrom of September 11, may weather better, at least from the models I’ve seen
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but we will have to wait until 2017 to pass a firmer judgement.

Well, it seems that my wife and I have plenty of excuses to come back to New York in the years to come. Which is nice, because the primary current excuse for our coming, our daughter living here, is about to disappear as she moves on to greater and better things.

_____________________
Silent film dramatic scene: http://bayflicks.net/2014/01/17/whats-screening-january-17-23/
WTC 1: http://anotherpartofme.com/the-real-reason-one-world-trade-center-1wtc-lost-its-best-features/
WTC 2: http://www.cnn.com/2015/06/12/travel/two-world-trade-center-tower-big/
Transportation Hub: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/25/nyregion/a-crossroads-decades-gone-will-reopen-at-the-world-trade-center.html
Ground Zero: http://www.propublica.org/article/new-docs-detail-how-feds-downplayed-ground-zero-health-risks
Stegosaurus reconstruction: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stegosaurus_in_popular_culture
Stegosaurus skeleton: https://digitalstore.makerbot.com/stegosaurus-skeleton
St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/31/nyregion/st-nicholas-church-destroyed-on-9-11-to-rebuild-with-byzantine-design.html

IT SHOULD FIT OVER MY SOFA

New York, 28 December 2015

I’ve described in a previous post the beautiful, and really very unique, High Line Park in New York. On our first visit to the park, we heard that the Whitney museum was planning to relocate from uptown to new premises bang on the High Line. Now, two years later, the plans have come to fruition, and since we are once again in town to celebrate Christmas and New Year with the children we decided to go and visit.

The building itself was designed by the architect Renzo Piano, he of the Centre Pompidou in Paris (along with fellow architect Richard Rogers)
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and, less felicitously, of the Shard in London
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along with a string of projects in between. The new Whitney is not as spectacular as these two, giving the impression of being more of a workmanlike project – how to give the museum lots of exhibition space – and blending in quite well with its surroundings.
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One also gets beautiful views across the Hudson River from its windows.
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Perhaps it’s just as well. I mean, the main purpose of going to a museum is not so much to see the container as to see what is contained (I grant, though, that a handsome packaging can add lustre to what’s in the package). So let me focus on the contents.

Actually, I don’t really want to focus on the contents as such, but rather use them to meditate on something which gets under my skin when it comes to really modern art – let’s say, stuff produced in the last sixty years i.e., during my lifetime.

I happen to think that the primary purpose of any piece of art should be to adorn one’s abode in a way that gladdens the heart and puts a spring in one’s step. The key, though, is that the piece of art should fit through the door of one’s abode and, once in, should fit on a wall of that abode (or, if a sculpture, on a small table or shelf). The core of the Whitney’s collection, from the ’30s and ’40s, would do this admirably. For instance, there was a lovely Hopper on view which would could be passed through the door of our apartment quite easily and would fit quite nicely on one of its walls.
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It’s one of several delectable Hoppers in the collection. Or I wouldn’t mind at all putting this painting by Charles Demuth on our wall.
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Getting it into the apartment would be a breeze – I think it could probably even fit it into the small elevator we have in our building, thus avoiding us having to carry it up three flights of stairs.

But as we get into the late ’50s, early ’60s, the pieces begin to grow. We would just about be able to manhandle this Pollock which the Whitney has through our apartment door, but I think we would have difficulty finding a place for it on the wall.
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And this painting by his wife Lee Krasner would be impossible to hang in our apartment, it’s just too damned big let alone of a size to get through the door.
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The pieces in the Frank Stella show which the Whitney is currently organizing were even worse. They were huge lumbering monsters, which would not even fit through the front doors of our apartment building, leave alone through the door of our apartment.
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And even if by some miracle we got them into the apartment, many of his pieces jut out, making it hard to have any furniture around them.
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Of course, given the stellar prices for modern art, only plutocrats can afford to buy these pieces. But do even they live in such palatial abodes as to make it possible for such a piece to fit snugly in the living room, say? I find it hard to believe.

I can only assume that much modern art is either made for large and powerful multinational corporations, whose huge atriums or corporate boardrooms in their Headquarters have enough space for such pieces
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or it is made for museums such as the Whitney which have large exhibition spaces. Either way, art for the people it is not. And that’s a pity, because at the end of the day art should be for us, something which we can hang on our wall and admire for decades or even centuries before perhaps donating it to a museum.

I think it’s time for a new art movement, the FOTS (“Fits Over The Sofa”) movement.

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_____________________
Centre Pompidou: http://www.leparis.pl/centre-georges-pompidou-muzeum-sztuki-wspolczesnej/
The Shard: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Renzo_Piano
The Whitney (both views): http://whitney.org/About/NewBuilding
View across the Hudson: http://elizabethbarton.blogspot.com
Edward Hopper “Early Sunday Morning”: http://collection.whitney.org/artist/621/EdwardHopper
Charles Demuth “My Egypt”: http://collection.whitney.org/object/635
Jackson Pollock “Number 27, 1950”: http://www.allartnews.com/pollock-and-the-irascibles-the-new-york-school-opens-at-palazzo-reale-in-milan/
Lee Krasner “The Seasons”: http://www.brooklynstreetart.com/theblog/2015/04/30/the-new-whitney-opens-may-1-america-is-hard-to-see/#.VoE8i3o8KrU
Frank Stella: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/30/arts/design/tracking-frank-stellas-restless-migrations-from-painting-and-beyond.html?_r=0
Frank Stella: http://www.hedgefundintelligence.com/Article/3503103/Steve-Cohen-sponsors-Frank-Stella-exhibition-at-the-Whitney-Museum.html
Headquarter atrium art: http://houston.culturemap.com/news/entertainment/03-02-13-image-bending-spanish-artist-transforms-downtown-houston-office-atrium-with-iwavesi/slideshow/
Corporate boardroom art: http://www.artworks-solutions.com/news/view/corporate-art-works
Space over sofa: http://www.utrdecorating.com/blog/hanging-pictures-sofa/

KEEP IT SIMPLE

Bangkok, 19 December 2015

I don’t know what it was, it seems to be happening to me more and more often as I near retirement, but a few days ago my mind wandered off the Worthy but Very Boring Thing I was working on and, light as feather, drifted away on the winds of memory to finally alight in St. George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle, which is the spiritual home of the Order of the Garter.

Yes, I know, very strange. What can I say, that’s where my mind went that day.

My wife and I had visited the chapel some nine-ten years ago. For those of my readers who have never been there, I throw in a photo that gives a generalized view of the chapel’s interior.
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I could chirrup on about the age of the chapel, its architecture, its history. But I won’t. I invite readers who are interested in these details to go to the relevant websites. Instead, I will focus on the one thing that immediately strikes any sentient being who crosses the chapel’s threshold: the flags hanging from its walls.
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I need to explain these flags, which in turn requires me to give a brief background to the Order of the Garter. As any English child of my generation will know, if they didn’t spend all their history classes snoozing, the Order of the Garter was created by King Edward III one evening back in the early 1300s, during a dance, when the Countess of Salisbury lost her garter. As the King picked it up, someone sniggered, and the King pronounced (in French; the English kings didn’t speak English yet) “Honi soit qui mal y pense”, which can be loosely translated as “Only dirty buggers would see anything wrong in my simply picking up a garter”. Now, why this story should have led to the creation of an Order of Chivalry (basically, a club of aristocrats), with the reigning monarchs at its head and the original kingly utterance as its motto, was not clear to me when I was a ten year old boy and is still not clear to me as a sixty-one year old adult. But there you go, it did.

The important point as far as the flags are concerned is that the members of the Order were originally all aristocrats, and as we all know one of the many things which distinguished aristocrats from the vulgar hoi polloi like us was the fact that they had the right to a coat of arms. So what we have hanging from the walls are the heraldic banners of the members of the order (which of course means that when the Order began to let in representatives of the vulgar hoi polloi these vulgar persons had to get themselves double quick a title and a coat of arms).

For the purpose of my story, there is another important point to make about the Order’s membership. From the start, there could only be 24 members in addition to the sovereign and the Prince of Wales, and of course the members were only English (and later British). But George III started adding “supernumerary” members, to deal with the pressing problem of him having a whole bunch of sons who all wanted to be members. Then he had the bright idea of adding the Emperor of Russia as a supernumerary member, after which various other members of European royal families got added, then more exotic royalty like the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire and the King of Persia, to finish – importantly for this story – this march to the East with the Emperor of Japan in 1903. The Emperors of Japan have been members ever since (barring, understandably, the World War II years and several decades thereafter when spirits were still bruised by Japanese atrocities).

OK, so what, I hear my readers say. Well, all this allows me to vault onto one of my favourite hobby horses, my insistence that design should be simple. In this case, I am referring to the design of the members’ heraldic banners. To see what I mean, please see below the coat of arms of one of the British members, that of Gerald Grosvenor, 6th Duke of Westminster (I choose him for no other reason than he is stinking rich due to his property holdings around Grosvenor Square in London and elsewhere).
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So complicated! So fussy! So busy! The formal heraldic description of the shield, which is what is on the banner, says it all:
“Quarterly, 1st and 4th, Azure a Portcullis with chains pendant Or on a Chief of the last between two united Roses of York and Lancaster a Pale charged with the Arms of King Edward the Confessor; 2nd and 3rd, Azure a Garb Or”.

Aïe! Contorted! Confusing! And this is not the most complicated of the Order’s members’ banners. I mean, look at the one of the good Prince of Wales
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with its heraldic description of the shield “Quarterly 1st and 4th Gules three lions passant guardant in pale Or armed and langed Azure 2nd Or a lion rampant Gules armed and langued Azure within a double tressure flory counterflory 3rd Azure a harp Or stringed Argent overall an inescutcheon of the Royal Badge of Wales”. It hurts my eyes just to read this.

Consider, now, the banner of the Emperor of Japan, which responds to the same original need – signaling who you are on the battlefield – but adopts a completely different design principle:
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So simple! And simply so beautiful!

The beautiful, essential simplicity of the Japanese banner immediately leapt out at me that summer morning years ago when we visited the chapel. The second photo I’ve inserted shows this, where the Emperor’s banner shines out among all the surrounding fussiness. And I have kept that memory with me ever since, as a vivid reminder of the KISS design principle: Keep It Simple, Stupid (a principle originally enunciated, interestingly enough, by the US Navy in 1960).

It must have been some fussy design which set my mind wandering those few days ago …

__________________________
St. George’s Chapel interior: https://boothancestry.wordpress.com/booth-profiles/knights-of-the-garter/
The flags:
https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/St_George%27s_Chapel,_Windsor_Castle
Duke of Westminster’s coat of arms: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Order_of_the_Garter#List_of_Founder_Knights
Prince of Wales’s coat of arms: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Order_of_the_Garter#List_of_Founder_Knights
Emperor of Japan’s standard: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Akihito

SWEET POTATOES AND CATAMARANS

Bangkok, 22 November 2015

I was in Vanuatu recently, which, for those readers not familiar with the Pacific, is one of those many little island states that dot the Pacific Ocean, like Tuvalu or Palau or Kiribati. I was there on business, for reasons which are too long to explain here. In any event, as is my habit, when I had a little bit of spare time I went down to the local market in the capital, Port Vila, to see what fruits, veggies, and other local delicacies they might be selling.

market port vila

Much of what I saw was familiar, although I don’t think I’ve ever seen taro before (those neat little bunches behind the potatoes)

taro

and I’ve definitely never seen sea grapes, which is a kind of seaweed if I’ve understood correctly (no idea how you eat them).

sea grapes

Sweet potatoes fall into the category of the known. Nevertheless, I did pause in front of them and go dreamy.

sweet potato market port vila

It wasn’t so much for the sweet potatoes – I’m not a great fan of this tuber, to be honest – but rather for its story here in the Pacific. Let me explain.

As previous posts attest, I have a great interest in the movement of foodstuffs around the world, so whenever I go to markets I always mentally map how the fruits and vegetables (and sometimes meat) must have originally ended up on the counters before me. True to form, I went through the same exercise in that market in Port Vila. Much of what I was seeing was brought into the Pacific Islands from the West, either brought along for the ride by the original inhabitants of the islands when they migrated out of South-East Asia, or through later regional trade between the Pacific Islands and South-East Asia, or even later through the colonial masters when they took over the islands. But the sweet potato was different. As I’m sure my readers know, the sweet potato originally comes from northern South America and possibly Central America. So how did it make it to the Pacific Islands? Well, it could definitely have come with the Spaniards after they conquered Latin America and set up a long distance trading system between Mexico and the Philippines – and in fact, at least one type of sweet potato was introduced to the Pacific Islands this way. It could also have come from the other direction, via Europe – and this is indeed the way that the Portuguese introduced the sweet potato to this part of the world, mostly to the islands of South-East Asia rather than the Pacific itself, as they sniffed around the area for spices. But there was another route of introduction of the sweet potato to the Pacific Islands, one which is much more fascinating, and this was by the Pacific Islanders themselves, who sailed all the way to South America and brought the sweet potato back with them (and may have left the chicken, although this is much debated). Since I’ve been talking about maps, here’s one which summarizes nicely the spread of the sweet potato in the Pacific:

map of sweet potato spread

The blue line is the Spanish introduction, the yellow line is the Portuguese introduction, and the red line is the introduction by the Polynesians. The evidence for a Polynesian introduction is archaeological (remains of sweet potato in Polynesian tombs datable to a time long before the colonial period), linguistic (as the map shows, there is a definite similarity between the Polynesian/Melanesian name of the sweet potato and its original South American name), and more recently DNA-related, through comparison of gene sequence mappings of the DNA of South American varieties with old specimens kept in European herbariums collected during the first trips of exploration by James Cook, Louis de Bougainville, and others.

The map also shows the most probable route taken by the Polynesians to reach South America, via Easter Island. But now, let me tell you, East Island is far away from South America. It’s about 3,500 km far away. And on the other side it’s far away from other Pacific Islands. It’s about 3,600 km far away from the islands of French Polynesia, which are the closest biggish islands. Yet, the Polynesians sailed these vast distances – and not on some big comfy ship running on oil and crammed full with the latest navigation equipment but on a boat like this, powered by sail, and where they could only rely on their reading of stars, cloud formations, sea swells, and bird flight patterns to navigate.

polynesian ship

This picture clearly romanticizes the vessel. It must have been a cramped, dangerous voyage. Many times, the ships must have got lost at sea – James Cook writes of coming across a boatful of Polynesians in the middle of nowhere, who had been driven off course by a storm and were asking where they were.

This is a modern version of one of these ships, built in the 1970s,

modern polynesian ship

which clearly shows the unique aspect of their design, the use of two hulls. In fact, this design inspired modern ocean-going catamarans and eventually the truly amazing catamarans that now race in the America’s Cup.

image

These beauties can go up to 80 km/hr, but a more typical speed on a modern ocean going catamaran would be 15 km/hr. Doing a little maths here, it would therefore take a modern catamaran about 10 days to sail from Easter Island to South America. So if luck was with them, if the winds stayed steady and did not get too boisterous, if there were no nasty storms to drive them off course, the Polynesians probably would have had to last 10 days-two weeks out in the Pacific before hitting South America, which seems doable. Getting back, though, must have been considerably harder. I mean, on the way there, the Polynesians just had to hit South America, which is kinda big. On the way back, though, they would have had to hit these tiny specks in the ocean, specks which on top of it were much further away – taking the trade winds out of South America would have meant their having to aim for the French Polynesian islands for their first landfall, and these are 8,000 km away, or something like three weeks’ sailing if all went well.

But some Polynesians made it to South America and a few others made it back, with the sweet potato in tow. Because of these very skillful and very courageous sailors, I was looking at sweet potatoes in the market at Port Vila. No wonder I paused and smiled when I saw these not very tasty tubers.

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Port Vila market: https://scottmathiasraw.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/img_4446.jpg (in https://scottmathiasraw.com/vanuatu-welcomes-australian-raw-food-chef/)

Taro, Port Vila market: http://www.asiapacificnazarene.org/wp-content/uploads/s_Market-food.jpg (in http://www.asiapacificnazarene.org/five-months-post-cyclone-pam-vanuatu-recovering-thank-you-for-your-prayers-and-partnership/)

Sea grapes: http://photos1.blogger.com/img/164/977/1024/IMG_0110.jpg (in http://becksposhnosh.blogspot.com/2005/09/nama.html)

Sweet potato, Port Vila market: http://c8.alamy.com/comp/DFEN99/purple-colored-sweet-potatoes-in-a-basket-made-of-palm-leaves-on-a-DFEN99.jpg (in http://www.alamy.com/stock-photo-purple-colored-sweet-potatoes-in-a-basket-made-of-palm-leaves-on-a-61174997.html)

Map of spread of sweet potato in Pacific: http://www.pnas.org/content/110/6/2205/F1.large.jpg (in http://www.pnas.org/content/110/6/2205/F1.expansion.html)

Polynesian ship: http://cdn.arstechnica.net/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/kane_waa_small10-640×422.jpeg (in http://arstechnica.com/science/2013/01/polynesians-reached-south-america-picked-up-sweet-potatoes-went-home/)

Modern Polynesian ship: http://pvs.kcc.hawaii.edu/images/canoes/hokulea_circa_1975.jpg (in http://pvs.kcc.hawaii.edu/index/founder_and_teachers/nainoa_thompson.html)

America Cup boat: http://www.examiner.com/article/america-s-cup-event-authority-launches-new-sailing-simulation-app

LET’S CHANGE THE FAO LOGO

Bangkok, 9 September 2015

Fairly often, I walk past the Bangkok office of FAO (the Food and Agricultural Organization, not the Schwartz of the toys), and with time the logo of the Organization, which is placed on the gate of the building, has seeped into my consciousness.

FAO icon

As it’s seeped into my consciousness, I’ve begun to look at it more closely. Let me give you a more formal view of the logo so that we can study it together.

FAO_logo.svg

It’s a simple design, as all good designs should be.

And it’s profoundly colonialist, or at the very least extremely euro-centric.

Let me explain.

What we have here is a stylized head of wheat with a motto in Latin, “Fiat Panis”, “Let There Be Bread”. OK, you may say, so what’s the big deal? FAO is there to eliminate hunger, bread is perhaps the most fundamental of foods (remember Marie-Antoinette’s comment “let them eat cake” when told that the peasants had no bread), and wheat makes bread.

Oh really? The Thais eat bread? And the other South-East Asians? How about the Chinese? The Koreans? The Japanese? Rice reigns supreme here. And while the people of the Indian sub-continent consume bread (naan and roti come to mind), they also consume huge amounts of rice, as well as substantial amounts of sorghum, millet, and maize. Talking of maize, in its birthplace, Mexico, and much of Central America, it is still the major cereal consumed (think tortillas), while the Spaniards and the Portuguese carried it off to all corners of the globe, so that not only the Indians but the Chinese and many other Asians now also eat large amounts of maize. The same is true of Sub-Sahara Africa – it’s the most consumed cereal in that part of the world, along with millet (many of whose species originated in Africa), sorghum (also originally from Africa), as well as lesser-known grains like teff in the Ethiopian highlands, fonio in the savannah areas of Western Africa, and Africa’s own variety of rice along the rivers of Western Africa. And although the Europeanss who colonized the Americas brought with them the habit of consuming wheat, not only maize but other grains, like qinoa, or its close relative kañiwa, or even amaranth, have hung on.

But FAO, created in the aftermath of World War II, was very much a creation of Europeans and neo-Europeans (the countries in the Americas and Australasia which were colonized by Europeans and whose elites probably ate bread and not tortillas or the local equivalent). Of the 37 original countries who signed up to the FAO when it was created in October 1945, 29 were Europeans or neo-Europeans. Of the remainder, 4 came from the Arab region, also wheat eating. Of the three Asian signatories, India (as we have seen) eats quite a bit of wheat, especially its northern regions where the-then Hindi political elite came from (I’m a bit puzzled that India signed up, though; it was still a British colony). That leaves the Philippines, who no doubt just followed the US lead, and China, represented by the Nationalists who were anxious to keep their friends in the West during their fight to the death with the Communists and so who weren’t going to make a fuss over anything so trivial as a logo (maybe they didn’t even notice it).  As for Liberia, the one lone African signatory (the others all being colonies and therefore not counting as countries), given its history it also no doubt followed the U.S.’s lead.

So wheat it was on the FAO logo. But did they really have to add the Latin motto? Such a super European thing to do! Have something in front of you which looks like a heraldic shield, and slap a Latin motto onto it (it was put there by FAO’s first Director-General, by the way, a Brit; why am I not surprised?). I mean, as a European who had Latin as part of my education (very unwillingly, I should add), I like the motto. It gives an apparent nobility, a timelessness, to a simple message: let me eat. It also reminds me subliminally of my (European) Christian upbringing – I’m old enough to remember Sunday masses in Latin, where of course bread is central to the liturgy. It also reminds me of a line in the New Testament (I wonder if the British Director-General had this in mind when he chose the motto), when Jesus is being tempted in the desert by the devil. At one point, the devil says to him (in the Latin Vulgate version) “Si Filius Dei es, dic lapidi huic ut panis fiat”, “If you are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread.” Turning stones into bread: a nice description of farming. But all this is very, very elitist, holding meaning to a tiny percentage of the world’s population. It means nothing to the Chinese or Indian farmer, or the campesino in Latin America, or the African subsistence farmer eking out an existence on the edges of life. Yet they are the clients of FAO, not me, white, educated, and urbanite.

So I think we need to redesign FAO’s logo. I’m open to all and any suggestions, but here are my thoughts. First, throw out the motto; let’s keep to the one universal language that we all have, images. Just as an example to encourage us, UNICEF, which has its office next to FAO’s, also has its logo on the gate.

unicef logo

No words, just an image, and of course an absolutely universal image of mother and child. This is what we should aspire to.

My first thought is that the logo should recognize that we all eat lots of different foods all over the world. We can’t have all of them on the logo, but we could have those most eaten. For example, I read that the ten most eaten staple foods in the world are maize, rice, wheat, potatoes, cassava, soybeans, sweet potatoes, yams, sorghum, and plantain. So why not shove all of of them into a cornucopia like this one, so dear to Americans around Thanksgivingcornucopia iconand put it on FAO’s logo?

After an initial burst of enthusiasm, I hesitate. First of all, I am committing exactly the same sin which I am accusing the original designers of, cultural imperialism. Who, outside of the European and neo-European countries, has ever heard of cornucopias? This was a Roman invention, attributed to several Gods and Goddesses having to do with food and agriculture. Of these, I prefer the Goddess Abundantia, for no other reason than it’s a pretty cool name.

Abundantia

As you can see, she is nestling a cornucopia along her left arm.

Abundantia’s name also happens to show the second big problem with cornucopias. Her name gave us our word “abundance”, and that is indeed the purpose of the cornucopia, to show the overflowing fruits of the earth – that’s why it pops up at Thanksgiving, when everyone is gorging themselves. But abundance is not what 90% of FAO’s clients have. I think it would be rather a slap in their face to flaunt so much abundance.

Why not move away from the fruits of farming to the act of farming itself? And here I’m thinking of the act of ploughing – not completely universal, I grant you, since herdsmen don’t plough, but still pretty symbolic of farming from time immemorial.

egyptian ploughing

Some sort of simplified picture like this could do the trick

hand ploughing-2

although obviously this particular picture carries a lot of European cultural baggage: the horse, the way the man is dressed. But I’m sure a professional designer could come up with something less fixed to a certain time and place. Of course, fitting all of that in a readable form onto a logo might be a challenge. Perhaps the picture should be just the plough itself, something like this.hand ploughAgain, after an initial moment of enthusiasm, I hesitate. I could be accused of wanting farmers to stay in the Stone Age. Why not have a modernist, aspirational logo like a tractor, which no doubt every farmer, sweating away as he ploughs his field with his ox or horse or other beast of burden, would devoutly wish for? Something like this:

tractor logo

But frankly I don’t like tractors much; I have a rather contrasted relationship with this piece of agricultural machinery. So I’ll nix that idea.

After some thought, I suggest we should go for something much simpler, something much more fundamental, something much more basic: this

planting-3aAfter all, once you strip out all the technology, all the sophistication, all those damned tractors, isn’t that what farming is essentially about, nurturing a plant to grow?

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FAO logo: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/d/db/FAO_logo.svg/2000px-FAO_logo.svg.png (in https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Food_and_Agriculture_Organization_of_the_United_Nations)

UNICEF logo: http://www.somalicurrent.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/UNicef.png (in http://www.zwallpix.com/unicef-logo.html)

Cornucopia icon: http://www.clker.com/cliparts/1/8/a/5/128509193232136462thanksgiving-cornucopia-large.jpg (in http://www.clker.com/clipart-71521.html)

Statue of Abundantia: http://arachne.uni-koeln.de/images/Abbildungen/FADatenbankabb0488/BA-Museum-Neg-NrBard115_2211,05.jpg (in http://arachne.uni-koeln.de/browser/clarac_index.php?view%5Blayout%5D=clarac_page&clarac%5Bsearch%5D%5BPS_WebseiteID%5D=3125)

Egyptian ploughing: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/9/91/Maler_der_Grabkammer_des_Sennudem_001.jpg/1280px-Maler_der_Grabkammer_des_Sennudem_001.jpg (in https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Maler_der_Grabkammer_des_Sennudem_001.jpg)

Hand ploughing: http://image.shutterstock.com/display_pic_with_logo/300715/300715,1243435606,4/stock-photo-farmer-and-horse-drawn-plough-30987703.jpg (in http://www.shutterstock.com/pic-30987703/stock-photo-farmer-and-horse-drawn-plough.html)

Hand plough: http://img.index.hu/imgfrm/4/5/6/4/BIG_0007494564.jpg (in http://forum.index.hu/Article/showArticle?go=99788228&t=9201739)

Tractor logo: Hand ploughing: https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/736x/ed/04/8b/ed048bb8cfea5f269418c1476160f152.jpg (in http://janesbrickroad.blogspot.com/2010/07/jacobs-creek.html)

Planting: http://thumb9.shutterstock.com/display_pic_with_logo/2857603/257887916/stock-vector-hand-holding-a-leafy-plant-symbol-for-download-vector-icons-for-video-mobile-apps-web-sites-and-257887916.jpg (in http://www.shutterstock.com/s/planting+seeds/search.html)