Archive for March, 2008|Monthly archive page

Well-Respected Beards, No. 008: Jim Henson


Come on, you know you love him. How many smiles has this dude been responsible for over the last 40 years? How many people can recite that “Number 12” song without even blinking? How hard is it to be green, really? Why does some silly rainbow video have half a million hits? I mean, seriously, it’s a sack made of green felt with some guy’s fist up in it not playing a miniature banjo.

Mr. Henson, if you’re out there, I just want to say thanks for that whole Dark Crystal thing, because the swamp scene totally blew my mind. Sorry I missed you in Leland.

Photo via this here frog fanatic.


Genesis 1:11, Now With Neodarwinian Stylings!


“You see, kids, the Calla lily, or Zantedeschia aethopica, isn’t really a lily at all! In fact, Brianna, the white part you are touching — which you so innocently call the “flower” — is actually just a leaf, or bract, that has been modified by natural selection to attract insect pollinators to the inflorescence inside of it. Thousands of tiny orange male flowers sit atop hundreds of tiny female flowers on a long column called a spadix, in an arrangement similar to that utilized by the genus Arum. The genus Zantedeschia is native to Africa, which is where we humans probably started evolving away from the common ancestor we share with apes and chimpanzees. Modern humans have only been around for a few hundred thousand years, and ever since then we have looked to the heavens and our favorite bedtime stories to explain the things we don’t understand or refuse to learn about.”

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Konrad Lorenz on Anthropomorphism


The creative writer, in depicting an animal’s behaviour, is under no great obligation to keep within the bounds of exact truth than is the painter or the sculptor in shaping an animal’s likeness. But all three artists must regard it as their most sacred duty to be properly instructed regarding those particulars in which they deviate from the actual facts. They must indeed be even better informed on these details than on others which they render in a manner true to nature. There is no greater sin against the spirit of true art, no more contemptible dilettantism than to use artistic license as a specious cover for ignorance of fact.

I am a scientist and not a poet and I shall not aspire, in this little book, to improve on nature by taking any artistic liberties. Any such attempt would certainly have the opposite effect, and my only chance of writing something not entirely devoid of charm lies in strict adherence to scientific fact. Thus, by modestly keeping to the methods of my own craft, I may hope to convey, to my kindly reader, at least a slight inkling of the infinite beauty of our fellow creatures and their life.

Excerpted from the preface to King Solomon’s Ring.

E.O. Wilson on Memory


What happened, what we think happened in distant memory, is built around a small collection of dominating images.

Consider how long-term memory works. With each changing moment, the mind scans a vast landscape of jumbled schemata, searching for the one or two decisive details upon which rational action will be based. The mind with a search image is like a barracuda. The large predatory fish pays scant attention to the rocks, pilings, and vast array of organisms living among them. It waits instead for a glint of silver that betrays the twisting body of a smaller fish. It locks on this signal, rushes forward, and seizes the prey in its powerful jaws. Its singlemindedness is why swimmers are advised not to wear shiny bracelets or wrist watches in barracuda waters.

The human mind moving in a sea of detail is compelled like a questing animal to orient by a relatively few decisive configurations. There is an optimum number of such signals. Too few, and the person becomes compulsive-obsessive; too many, and he turns schizophrenic. Configurations with the greatest emotional impact are stored first and persist longer. Those that give the greatest pleasure are sought on later occasions. The process is strongest in children, and to some extent it programs the trajectory of their lives. Eventually they will weave the decisive images into a narrative by which they explain to themselves and others the meaning of what has happened to them. As the Talmud says, we see things not as they are, but as we are.

Excerpted from the autobiography of Edward O. Wilson, Naturalist.
Image from here.

Imaginary Album Art: Frugivore


Apparently during SXSW week in Austin even some Cedar Waxwings can start a band. It’s a good thing I had time to churn out the album cover before their free showcase in my backyard. The drummer is down there on the left … I think he said his name was Saul.

Fenestraria aurantiaca


(“Fenestra” — from the Latin defenestrate, meaning “to uninstall Windows from one’s computer.”) A succulent plant native to southern Africa which has evolved a waxy translucent window to channel sunlight down into the leaves even when the plant is buried in sand.

From a very clever person at the University of Pretoria named At de Lange:

You are speaking of “Fenestraria aurantiaca”. The genus name (in this case “Fenestraria”) comes first and is written with a capital letter. The species name (in this case “aurantiaca”) comes second and is written with a small letter. Cultivated specimens of it is often sold in supermarkets in Europe. One plant can produce on average ten seed capsules and each capsule can produce on average one hundred seedlings. So ten plants can become the source of ten thousand of plants per year. It takes two years to grow a nice specimen.

I am sure that some of you have already seen “Fenestraria aurantiaca” for sale in a supermarket. Perhaps you have looked a few seconds at it and found its windows curious. But my point is that you will not remember any more this curiosity — you will have to look up in a book how it looks like. On the other hand, should you find “Fenestraria aurantiaca” in the desert itself, you will never, never again forget this experience. You might not know that its name is “Fenestraria aurantiaca”, but you will recognise it anywhere in the world and think tenderly of your experiences while finding it.
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