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23 June 2017
Morning Sedition

"The one who gives gifts
goes naked and does without."

"The Three Graces", circa 323-146 B.C.

"The Three Graces", circa 323-146 B.C. (Louvre, Paris)

The other day I saw a reproduction of the Louvre's Three Graces relief, and it reminded me of all the mythology I used to read when I were a lad. (As opposed to all the mythology I read today in the New York Times; Fox News isn't mythology, of course, it's pure Lovecraftian horror.) Anyway, I remember the three graces and have thought that the message they carry is a nice one. So I wrote it up.

"The Three Graces", Fragment of Wall Frieze, Pompeii

"The Three Graces", Wall Frieze, Pompeii, circa 60 AD

The three graces, all sisters, are the daughters of Zeus and Euryeome or Hera. (Zeus, as you'll recall, had a serious problem keeping it under his toga.) As the attendent goddesses to Aphrodite — the goddess of love — the three were all that is grace and beauty personified. Each represents a different facet of the goddess: Aglaca, splendor; Euphrosyne, joyfulness; and Thalia, abundance.

"The Three Graces" by Raphael, 1504

"The Three Graces" by Raphael, 1504 (Musee Conde, Chantilly)

Artists and writers have been influenced by the three graces through the ages; the Greeks painted vases and made sculptures, the Romans made friezes at Pompeii, and painters like Rubens and Raphael memorialized them forever. They are typically depicted as two figures facing us and one facing away, with the two outer figures looking in different directions from the center one. They have their hands on each other's shoulders, as if in dance. Without the graces, there can be neither pleasure nor dancing.

In addition to the artists who were inspired, was Andrea Alciato, a sixteenth century writer:

The three Graces attend Venus, and follow their mistress, and so prepare delights and things to eat. Euphrosyne brings happiness, Aglaia, glorious radiance, and Pitho is Persuasion herself, winsome and pleasing of speech.

Why are they naked?

Because loveliness resides in honesty of mind and pleases through its utter simplicity.

Is it because the ungrateful give nothing back that the Graces' casket is always empty?

The one who gives gifts goes naked and does without.

Why have their feet been recently attired with winged sandals?

The one who gives quickly, gives twice; generosity that is slow to appear is almost worthless.

Why does one turn with the others' arms around her?

Giving graciously makes interest. When one is let go, two remain to the giver.

Jupiter is father to them all. From heavnly seed Eurynome brought forth the divine creatures, dear to all.

Emblematum Liber (Book of Emblems) by Andrea Alciato, 1531

Andrea Alciato's Emblematum liber or Book of Emblems had enormous influence and popularity in the 16th and 17th centuries. It is a collection of 212 Latin emblem poems, each consisting of a motto (a proverb or other short enigmatic expression), a picture, and an epigrammatic text. Alciato's book was first published in 1531, and was expanded in various editions during the author's lifetime. It began a craze for emblem poetry that lasted for several centuries.

Emblematum Liber (Book of Emblems) by Andrea Alciato, 1531

"The Three Graces" by Peter Paul Rubens, 1639

"The Three Graces" by Peter Paul Rubens, 1639 (Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain)

Photograph of "The Three Graces", a Victorian Cameo

"The Three Graces", Victorian Cameo

Of course, not everyone has the same take on the same concept:

Photograph of "Bachelor and Three Graces" (tree grouping)

"Bachelor and Three Graces" (tree grouping) by Marlene Bruce, a photograph of three trees with the same name in the Calaveras Big Trees State Park

"Composition VII: The Three Graces" by Theo van Doesburg (1917)

"Composition VII: The Three Graces" by Theo van Doesburg (1917), (Gallery of Art, Washington University In St. Louis)

When Ya Got Money Ta Burn!

Hell Bank Note #1

Burning Hell Money

There’s always a particular smell of burning incense when one walks through the gates of a Buddhist temple. The smoke looms around in a mist-like form. The air is difficult to breathe and some of the people’s eyes burn from the ashes around. The faithful continue to add more to the already huge amount of incense of all shapes and sizes — the little flames on the top of the incense glows through the misty smoke. Before these incense lays the deities, to whom some ask for divine guidance for their cause.

Today, a girl was burning something else in the temple. I looked down at what she was burning — some form of paper money? It appeared so. She was dropping them into the flames one by one. I had seen something like this before — somewhere in a Chinese movie, a man was dropping paper money in a makeshift grill for his brother who had died. Curiously, I approached the girl.

"May I see one of those?" I asked.

"Of course," the woman replied.

I looked at what the paper money said. "Hell money," it read on the bottom.

"Hell Money", The Anthropology of Money in Southern California, by Alex Adair, Joanne Choi, Ceasor Dennis, Clara Lin, Lambert Yuen

Wads and Wads of Hell Money

Wads and wads of Hell Money waiting to be purchased and burned.

Bank of Hell Checkbook

Ian Whitney's travel photos of Bank of Hell checkbook

So, what the Hell — no pun intended — is this stuff, anyway?

When i was child, growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area, a friend of mine's family ran a grocery store. They were Chinese, and although almost everything in their store was exactly like the stuff in all the other small groceries in Berkeley, they also carried a few Chinese specialty items up by the counter. One of these was Hell Money. The word Hell was introduced to China, my friend's parents told me, by Christian missionaries who claimed that non-converted Chinese folks were all "going to Hell" when they died -- and the Chinese, thinking "Hell" was the proper English term for the afterlife, adopted the word. Thus, Hell Bank Notes are simply Afterlife Monetary Offerings or Spirit Money.

As they explained it to me, when people die, their spirits or ghosts go to an afterlife where they continue to live on, doing the same sort of things why did while alive, eating, drinking, wearing clothes, playing with their children, and so forth. In order to ensure that they have lots of good things in the afterlife, their relatives send them presents, and one of the best things to send them is Hell Bank Notes -- money to spend in the afterworld. In addition to Hell Bank Notes, some Chinese grocery stores also sell elaborately-made and multi-coloured paper watches, clothes, cars, Hell Credit Cards, and even refrigerators for the purpose of burning in the belief that doing so sends their essence to the afterlife world, where the recipient will be glad to receive such material goods.

Hell Bank Notes (Hell Money)

Hell Bank Note #2

Special furnace for burning Hell Money

Special furnace for burning Hell Money.

The question I have is what can you buy with fake money? (In the United States, the answer is quite a lot. That's why the Secret Service takes counterfeiting so seriously.) And what about inflation? Does burning more money make your ancestors richer, even if it makes you poorer? Anyway, this is no joke for the Chinese; they take this very seriously:

According to Chinese folklore, there is an increase in the incidence of accidents and deaths during the seventh month of the lunar calendar, an occurrence attributed to underworld spirits visiting the earth during this time. During Ghost Month, people prepare big feasts to indulge the many roaming ghosts.

Festivities to stop the troublemaking ghosts from disturbing the living were held island-wide yesterday, although the rituals have been attacked for polluting the environment.

Tables of offerings and urns of burning ghost money blocked many sidewalks in Taipei yesterday. An estimated 220,000 tons of ghost money is burned every year around Taiwan.

"Ghost Month Rites Calm Scientists' Consciences" The China Post, 15 August 15, 2000

Couple burning Hell Money

Couple on the street burning Hell Money

Wow! Did you catch this part: "220,000 tons of ghost money is burned every year around Taiwan." Just imagine if that were, say, old newspaper. How much air pollution would it cause? A lot, it turns out. So much that the government came up with a solution: (I'm quoting more of the article since their Website may not always be available.)

With the arrival of the arrival of the traditional Ghost Month, the Environmental Protection Administration (EPA) again urged urban residents to burn spirit money at municipal waste incinerators to prevent air pollution.

Yesterday in Kaohsiung City, an unusual ceremony was held at a newly cleaned municipal waste incinerator in Sanmin District.

In an address to the souls of the dead, Kaohsiung Deputy Mayor Yao Kao-chiao (???) sincerely informed roaming ghosts that the incinerator would be the best place for them to "withdraw" spirit money this year.

"We hope residents cooperate to burn all spirit money at the incinerator on the 29th day of the seventh lunar month," Yao said.

Kaohsiung City environmental officials said that last year 109 communities supported central-ized burning, and that 28 tonnes of money paper were burned in the incinerator. They estimated the move prevented about 3 tonnes of air pollutants from being released in the city.

Officials said that the participation of 408 communities in the program this year might boost the amount of centrally burned spirit money to 100 tonnes. A free service is available to deliver spirit money to the incinerator until the scheduled burning date.

Officials said that burning spirit money outdoors causes a substantial amount of air pollution and could result in fines ranging from NT$5,000 to NT$100,000 for residents and NT$100,000 to NT$1 million for factories and companies.

To attract more residents to use the service, officials have arranged for eminent Buddhist masters to be in charge of the month-end burning ceremony, ensuring a successfully delivery of people's respects to the gods.

"UNSEEN AUDIENCE: Kaohsiung officials invited spirits to `withdraw' spirit money offered for them at incinerators, where the smoke can be scrubbed for human lungs" by Chiu Yu-Tzu, Taipei Times, 16 August 2004

Hell Bank Note #3

But I like this description better than the "official" one:

The first report comes from Taiwan, where people traditionally burn paper "ghost money," which somehow reaches their dead ancestors, providing them with spending money in Heaven. But thanks to our huge balance of trade deficit, the Taiwanese apparently have so much money to burn that it is causing an air pollution problem.

So the city officials of Taipei came up with a brilliant alternative to ghost money. No doubt taking a cue from us Americans, who are experts in using credit cards to send our money up in smoke, they are now offering citizens a flammable "Kingdom of the Dead" credit card, which burns without creating pollution. A spokesman explained, "Like people, ghosts will find credit very convenient." Yes, they can now order their sheets direct from the Home Shopping Network! Frankly, when I heard about a government issuing a credit card that provides total security for your dead ancestors, I was incredulous. I couldn't believe that the Clintons hadn't thought of it first.

"The Skeptic&quot: The Newsletter of The North Texas Skeptics" Volume 7, Number 12, December 1993

Hell Bank Note #4

Most of the money images seen above comes from Randall van der Woning's blog.

Sources and Further Reading

  1. Hell Bank Notes for Sale
  2. "Ghost Month Rites Calm Scientists' Consciences" The China Post, 15 August 15, 2000
  3. "UNSEEN AUDIENCE: Kaohsiung officials invited spirits to `withdraw' spirit money offered for them at incinerators, where the smoke can be scrubbed for human lungs" by Chiu Yu-Tzu, Taipei Times, 16 August 2004
  4. Randall van der Woning's blog entry on Hell Money

Midnight on the Coast Highway by HST

"Dr. Gonzo" by Ralph Steadman

"Dr. Gonzo" by Ralph Steadman

Midnight on the Coast Highway
Hunter S. Thompson, San Francisco, 1965

"All my life my heart has sought a thing I cannot name."

Months later, when I rarely saw the Angels, I still had the legacy of the big machine - four hundred pounds of chrome and deep red noise to take out on the coast highway and cut loose at three in the morning, when all the cops were lurking over on 101. My first crash had wrecked the bike completely and it took several months to have it rebuilt. After that I decided to ride it differently: I would stop pushing my luck on curves, always wear a helmet, and try to keep within range of the nearest speed limit ... my insurance policy had been cancelled and my driver's license was hanging by a thread.

So it was always at night, like a werewolf, that I would take the thing out for an honest run down the coast. I would start in Golden Gate Park, thinking only to run a few long curves to clear my head, but in a matter of minutes I'd be out at the beach with the sound of the engine in my ears, the surf booming up on the sea wall and a fine empty road stretching all the way down to Santa Cruz ... not even a gas station in the whole seventy miles; the only public light along the way is an all night diner down around Rockaway Beach.

There was no helmet on those nights, no speed limit, and no cooling it down on the curves. The momentary freedom of the park was like the one unlucky drink that shoves a wavering alcoholic off the wagon. I would come out of the park near the soccer field and pause for a moment at the stop sign, wondering if I knew anyone parked out there on the midnight humping strip.

Then into first gear, forgetting the cars and letting the beast wind out .. . thirty-five, forty-five ... then into second and wailing through the light at Lincoln Way, not worried about green or red signals but only some other werewolf loony who might be pulling out, too slowly, to start his own run. Not many of those - and with three lanes on a wide curve, a bike coming hard has plenty of room to get around almost anything - then into third, the boomer gear, pushing seventy-five and the beginning of a windscream in the ears, a pressure on the eyeballs like diving into water off a highboard.

Bent forward, far back on the seat, and a rigid grip on the handlebars as the bike starts jumping and wavering in the wind. Tail-lights far up ahead coming closer, faster, and suddenly - zaaapppp - going past and leaning down for a curve near the zoo, where the road swings out to sea.

The dunes are flatter here, and on windy days sand blows across the highway, piling up in thick drifts as deadly as any oil slick ... instant loss of control, a crashing, a cartwheeling slide and maybe one of those two inch notices in the paper the next day: "An unidentified motor-cyclist was killed last night when he failed to negotiate a turn on Highway 1."

Indeed ... but no sand this time, so the lever goes up into fourth, and now there is no sound except wind. Screw it all the way over, reach through the handlebars to raise the headlight beam, the needle leans down on a hundred, and wind burned eyeballs strain to see down the centerline, trying to provide a margin for the reflexes.

But with the throttle screwed on there is only the barest margin, and no room at all for mistakes. It has to be done right ... and thats when the strange music starts, when you stretch your luck so far that fear becomes exhilaration and vibrates along your arms. You can barely see at one hundred; the tears blow back so fast that they vaporise before they get to your ears. The only sounds are the wind and a dull roar floating back from the mufflers. You watch the white line and try to lean with it ... howling though a turn to your right, then to the left and down the long hill to the Pacifica ... letting off now, watching for cops, but only until the next dark stretch and another few seconds on the edge... . The Edge... . There is no honest way to explain it because the only people who really know where it is are the ones who have gone over. The others - the living - are those who pushed their control as far as they felt they could handle it, and then pulled back, or slowed down, or did whatever they had to when it came time to chose between Now or Later.

But the edge is still Out there. Or maybe it's In. The association of motorcycles with LSD is no accident of publicity. They are both a means to an end, to the place of definitions.

That’s Utter Bosch!

Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights (tryptichon)

Garden of Earthy Delights (tryptich) by Bosch

The fifteenth century painter Hieronymus Bosch is one of those artists whom you either love or hate. His work is complex, and filled with monsters and mankind, angels and demons, signs and symbols. All concern the inherent corruption in humanity and the punishment to be meted out. Redemption is, alas, not an available option. (Guess he needed to get out a little more. Or maybe he got out too much...)

A half-millennium ago when Europe was moving out of the Middle Ages, Hieronymus Bosch, a prosperous painter and landowner in the duchy of Brabant in what is now the Netherlands, was widely admired as one of the cleverest, most pious, most perceptive, most apocalyptic masters of his times. He then slipped into several hundred years of obscurity. The symbolism and message of his terrifying masterpieces seemed bizarre and unsavory and even heretical. But he has been rediscovered in the 20th century. American tourists, who have little Bosch at home, now crowd through the museums of Europe to be awed by his great triptychs or to track down his smaller masterpieces.

The World of Bosch by Stanley Meisler

Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights (Hell)

Garden of Earthy Delights (Hell) by Bosch

Bosch's personal background, or at least what is know of it, apparently had a lot of influence in his work:

Hieronymus Bosch was born around 1450 (the exact date was not recorded) in the duchy of Brabant, which was then the realm of the dukes of Burgundy. He lived during unsettled and anxious times. The old medieval order imposed by the Church was straining and cracking under the onslaught of the growth of cities, the new vigor of commerce and capitalism, the rise of national states, the demands for religious reform and the beginnings of science. Minds were growing curious, analytical, adventurous. During Bosch's lifetime, the Dutch humanist Erasmus wrote Praise of Folly, the Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus proposed that the sun was at the center of our solar system, and Christopher Columbus discovered the New World. In 1517, a year after Bosch died, Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg. Historians point to these events as the beginnings of the modern world.

...

Bosch was among the pessimists. A member of a lay religious fraternity, he witnessed the corruption in the medieval Church and the sins of his townspeople, and cried out his warning of a wrathful retribution. The idea of an impending punishment was not new, of course, for it came directly out of the teachings of the Church. But Bosch issued his message with an imagery so fierce it could astound and chill his contemporaries and still fascinate his admirers 500 years later.

The World of Bosch by Stanley Meisler

Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights (detail)

Garden of Earthy Delights (detail) by Bosch

Everything is a symbol in Bosch's work: eggs represent sexual creation and alchemy; birds are unbelievers or carrion eaters representing death or decaying flesh; knives are punishment meted out for evil; the funnel hat is hypocrisy or deceit, intemperance, or an imposter doctor or alchemist. The number of symbols is quite large, but scholars have made compelling arguments for their value in decoding otherwise hidden messages.

But what is interesting is how artists are reinterpreting Bosh's work into three-dimensional versions. 3D Mouseion has a large collection of figures from paintings, including those by Bosch and other artists, rendered in 3D.

Here are some of the Bosch action figures. The "Bird with Letter" is from the tryptichon The Temptation of Saint Anthony; it is probably the most famous of the Bosch figures.

Bosch's Bird With Letter

Bird with Letter

The inscription on this note in the beak of this birdlike monster on skates could throw a light on the contemplated symbolism. Unfortunately, this text, which is difficult to read, is open to various interpretations, but none of them are proven to be accurate. The postman-like freak is perhaps delivering a letter to the conspiring figures in the hole under the bridge. The funnel on this curious bird’s head gives him a preposterous appearance. This headwear is referred to elsewhere as wisdom or absent-mindedness, but that symbolism seems unsuitable here.

Bird with Letter

Bosch's Helmeted Bird Monster

Helmeted Bird Monster

This helmeted bird monster is carrying a pencil box and an inkpot in its beak, in which the nun, decaying into a pig, is dipping her pen. A severed foot is swinging from the bird's helmet referring to the horrible corporal punishments which could be expected in hell. The pig, indeed an indictment against the decay of clergy life, is tempting the man who is sitting beside him and it appears that he is drawing up a contract. Is the man possibly selling his soul?

Helmeted Bird Monster

Bosch's Egg Monster

Egg monster

Amidst the many unlucky ones who are speared, ripped open, strangled or even fried, the monster in the egg that has been shot by an arrow, steps jovially into the middle panel. He appears to be detached from his entourage. Meanwhile, his fellow monsters are painstakingly going about their core-business: carrying out the merciless delivery of the final punishment, for us sinners, in a most inventive manner.

Egg monster

Sources and Further Reading

  1. The World of Bosch by Stanley Meisler
  2. Bosch figures
  3. Ibiblio page on Bosch

Keeping an Eye on Creationism

Prosthetic Eyes for Taxidermy

As Eric Cartman so eloquently stated, "Creationists piss me off." (Ok, ok, so he didn't say it; I did.) Creationists always trot out ridiculous arguments for their faith-based delusions, such as how the human eye is somehow "proof" of "intelligent design". To which I always say, if humans are the work of an intelligent being, that being must be an engineer, for only an engineer would run sewer lines through a recreational area.

Before I get to today's story, some background. About twenty years ago I read Richard Dawkin's book The Selfish Gene. In it he set forth the proposition with how humans are nothing more than meat machines created to reproduce the information viruses we call "genes". Over millions of years genes have tinkered with us to create ever more impressive structures to react to the environment and reproduce them, since they cannot act in real-time. The Selfish Gene remains one of the most amazing books I have ever read, and it truly altered the way I think about people and the world.

Like successful Chicago gangsters, our genes have survived, in some cases for millions of years, in a highly competitive world. This entitles us to expect certain qualities in our genes. I shall argue that a predominant quality to be expected in a successful gene is ruthless selfishness. This gene selfishness will usually give rise to selfishness in individual behavior. However, as we shall see, there are special circumstances in which a gene can achieve its own selfish goals best by fostering a limited form of altruism at the level of individual animals. 'Special' and 'limited' are important words in the last sentence. Much as we might wish to believe otherwise, universal love and the welfare of the species as a whole are concepts that simply do not make evolutionary sense.

The Selfish Gene

Diagram of Human Eye

About a decade ago Richard Dawkin's wrote a cogent, sensible, systematic, and somewhat definitive deconstruction of the creationists' arguments about how the the eye proves intelligent design. When I again stumbled across it today I thought it worthy of sharing.

Thus the creationist's favourite question "What is the use of half an eye?" Actually, this is a lightweight question, a doddle to answer. Half an eye is just 1 per cent better than 49 per cent of an eye, which is already better than 48 per cent, and the difference is significant.

When one says "the" eye, by the way, one implicitly means the vertebrate eye, but serviceable image-forming eyes have evolved between 40 and 60 times, independently from scratch, in many different invertebrate groups. Among these 40-plus independent evolutions, at least nine distinct design principles have been discovered, including pinhole eyes, two kinds of camera-lens eyes, curved-reflector ("satellite dish") eyes, and several kinds of compound eyes. Nilsson and Pelger have concentrated on camera eyes with lenses, such as are well developed in vertebrates and octopuses.

Where d'you get those peepers

These writeups on the eye from Paul Patton at the University of Illinois and Kenneth Miller at Brown may help explain things more. In addition, there is an interesting exploration of the aesthetic arguments raised by Dawkins with respect to the retina's design.

Read The Story

Last Exit for Number of the Beast

Route 666 Sign

Sign for US Route 666

Speaking of highway naming conventions, I was reminded how the Book of Revelations led to the removal of this highway number for U.S. 666 in summer of 2003; it is now known by the catchy name of U.S. 491. (Bar codes will clearly be next. I think I'll write that up next.) The Federal Highway Commission — your tax dollars at work — has a page devoted to U.S. 666: Beast of a Highway?. (I couldn't make this nonsense up if I tried.)

Running through the southeastern corner of Utah, US 666 is nothing more than a spur off US 66 running from Arizona to Monticello, Utah; like all spurs, it takes a number based on main highway. The big problem with the number was twofold: religious fanatics and theft. The fanatics, both Christian and Native American, mostly just wrote letters and telephoned; the thieves removed the signs from the highway where they had to be replaced. (It is possible the thefts were by those who thought the signs were evil, and not just cool; we'll likely never know.) Arizona's Department of Transportation routinely replaced missing signs, but the problem was getting out of hand. Since US 66 had been removed from the system in the late eighties, Arizona chose US 191 as the new name for the state's portion of the spur between I-10 and I-40.

Map of Route 666 in New Mexico

Map of US 666 in New Mexico

Three other states — New Mexico, Colorado, and Utah — left the US 666 number alone until Bill Richardson, governor of New Mexico, made it an issue on religious grounds. (He claimed that the highway signs were somehow preventing development in the area.) He had enough clout to get Colorado and Utah to join together with New Mexico in a joint resolution:

WHEREAS, people living near the road already live under the cloud of opprobrium created by having a road that many believe is cursed running near their homes and through their homeland; and

WHEREAS, the number "666" carries the stigma of being the mark of the beast, the mark of the devil, which was described in the book of revelations in the Bible; and

HEREAS, there are people who refuse to travel the road, not because of the issue of safety, but because of the fear that the devil controls events along United States route 666; and

WHEREAS, the economy in the area is greatly depressed when compared with many parts of the United States, and the infamy brought by the inopportune naming of the road will only make development in the area more difficult.

U.S. 666: Beast of a Highway?

This convinced the right people in the federal government to change the name, and the final chapter on US 666 was written:

They chose 393, which was not in use in any of the three States. The problem was that the number implied that the highway was a branch of U.S. 93 (Port of Roosville, Montana, to Wickenburg, Arizona) even though neither U.S. 666 nor U.S. 191 intersected U.S. 93. Moreover, U.S. 93 did not have any branches; if AASHTO were to number branches of U.S. 93 in sequence, the first would be U.S. 193, not 393.

At the suggestion of AASHTO, the States agreed to renumber the route as a spur of U.S. 191, with "491" chosen to avoid duplicating State route numbers. After AASHTO's Standing Committee on Highways approved the change, it became official on Saturday, May 31.

As S. U. Mahesh of the New Mexico State Highway and Transportation Department told the Albuquerque Journal, which number ended up on the highway was not important. "As long as it's not 666 and it's nothing satanic, that's OK."

U.S. 666: Beast of a Highway?

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