Living Vicariously Through Social Media: Herons in Amsterdam

Would you ever have thought large birds could live in cities? I would’ve found it a stretch on the basis of my experience, but apparently in Amsterdam in the Netherlands there is a large urban population of herons. Photographer Julie Hrudová has been documenting them, and the photos are very arresting.

Julie Hrudova Herons Amsterdam on Roofs

Some of the birds seem to be getting quite bold:

Julie Hrudova Herons Amsterdam Indoors Sm

Fascinating, isn’t it? Also, the pictures gives me all sorts of ideas for secondary worldbuilding. I could easily imagine semi-domesticated herons in a story, rather like the reindeer in Lapland.

Found via Colossal.

Images: On roofs by Julie Hrudová. Indoors by Julie Hrudová via Colossal.

The Visual Inspiration occasional feature pulls the unusual from our world to inspire design, story-telling, and worldbuilding. If stuff like this already exists, what else could we imagine?

Discrete Auroras on Mars in New, Impressive Images

Recent images taken by the Hope spacecraft launched by the United Arab Emirates show an improved view of auroras on Mars.

The auroras on Mars don’t just appear over the poles, however, but all around the planet. The Emirates Mars Mission didn’t discover these discrete auroras, but Hope’s images are, apparently, the most impressive captured so far.

Nature EMM Hope Discrete Auroras

Left: a spectrometer image captured by Hope; right: an artist’s impression of discrete auroras on Mars’s night side, both by Emirates Mars Mission via Springer Nature Ltd

As a fan of aurora borealis, I find it fascinating to get to see them on a neighboring planet. Yay, science!

Out There is an occasional feature highlighting intriguing art, spaces, places, phenomena, flora, and fauna.

Placing Heaven in a Bowl

Bowl enameled in green and purple with intricate metalwork
Modern minakari bowl, photograph by Interesting009 via Wikimedia

This gorgeous bowl is an example of a style of enamel work known as minakari (also spelled meenakari or mina-kari), which literally means “to place heaven into an object.”

The style was developed in Persia under the Safavid kingdom in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries CE. Artists of that time took enameling techniques from Europe and China and used them to create works whose intricate designs and vivid colors drew on the rich legacy of Persian and Islamic art.

Minakari works are still being produced today, especially in and around the city of Isfahan. “Placing heaven in an object” seems like a good enough description to me.

Out There is an occasional feature highlighting intriguing art, spaces, places, phenomena, flora, and fauna.

Even Heroes Take Time Off

Heroes don’t spend all their time being heroic. They need time off, too. That was the idea behind this beautiful vase by the ancient Athenian painter Exekias.

On one side, we see Achilles and Ajax, two of the great Greek warriors of the Trojan War, putting aside most of their armor for a while and playing a board game. Achilles is winning, as Exekias lets us know because he has given us the score: beneath Achilles’ head is the word “four,” beneath Ajax’s, “three.” According to literary tradition, Achilles’ tent was at one end of the Greek line, Ajax’s at the other, so this was not just a casual pick-up game; one or the other of the heroes must have crossed the entire Greek camp so they could play.

Amphora, Achilles and Ajax playing a game, photograph by Daderot via Wikimedia (Athens, currently Vatican Museums; c. 540-530 BCE; black-figure pottery; by Exekias)

On the other side of the vase, the twin heroes Castor and Pollux return home. They are welcomed by their parents, Tyndareus and Leda. On the left, Pollux leans down to greet a dog who jumps up, excited to see him.

Amphora, Castor and Pollux return home, photograph by M. Tiveros via Classical Art Research Centre (Athens, currently Vatican Museums; c. 540-530 BCE; black-figure pottery; by Exekias)

Exekias was an innovative artist. He was one of the first vase painters to show mythic heroes not in the midst of action but at ease, among the familiar surroundings of everyday life.

If you’ve been feeling the weight of the past year, take some inspiration from heroes: play a game, say hello to family, play with a pet. If it’s good enough for Achilles, Ajax, Castor and Pollux, it’s good enough for you, too.

Out There is an occasional feature highlighting intriguing art, spaces, places, phenomena, flora, and fauna.

Medieval Huntresses

Here are some ladies enjoying a good stag hunt, from an illumination in a copy of “The Letter of Othea to Hector” by Christine de Pizan. The image represents the mythical huntresses of the goddess Diana, as imagined by a medieval artist. We see one lady driving game by beating the bushes and another taking aim with her bow while two more blow the hunting horn and manage the dogs.

Hunting scene from the “Letter of Othea to Hector” via Wikimedia (Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris; 1407-1409; paint on parchment; by the Master of the Letter of Othea)

Out There is an occasional feature highlighting intriguing art, spaces, places, phenomena, flora, and fauna.

Living Vicariously Through Social Media: 60 Seconds of Mars

While aimlessly browsing social media, I stumbled upon a 60-second video clip from Mars. Below’s a screencap, since I was unable to find a video to embed:

Twitter NASA360 60 Seconds of Mars

(Sorry for not including more details of the area; the NASA Twitter account didn’t provide any, and I can’t find a corresponding video on their YouTube account or website, either. Perhaps it’s from Curiosity?)

Isn’t it amazing, when you think about it, that we as a species have not only sent multiple vehicles to space, but our technology is good enough that we have high-definition photography from the surface of our neighboring planet that we can just casually scroll through. And not just Mars, but the outer solar system as well.

(This video of Cassini’s grand finale at Saturn seems to have been computer-generated on the basis of Cassini photos, so not really qualify for the high-def photography category, but it’s very pretty nevertheless.)

Not bad for ugly bags of mostly water, eh? It is a very good time to be a space geek. 🙂

Found via NASA 360 on Twitter.

Out There is an occasional feature highlighting intriguing art, spaces, places, phenomena, flora, and fauna.

The Valley of the Whales

In the western desert of Egypt is a valley known as Wadi al-Hitan. Like some of the other famous valleys in Egypt, such as the Valley of the Kings and the Valley of the Queens, this valley is a kind of graveyard, but this one is for whales. Not that people buried whales here; rather, the desert preserves the fossils of a wide variety of sea life from millions of years ago, when this region was under a shallow sea. Among the most striking and important fossils at the site are the remains of several different species showing different stages of the evolution of ancient land mammals into the whales we know today.

Wadi al-Hitan is today preserved as a UNESCO site in recognition of both its stark natural beauty and its paleontological significance.

Images: An excavated fossil skeleton of a prehistoric whale, photograph by AhmedMosaad via Wikimedia. Spine and skull of a Dorudon atrox, photograph by Christoph Rohner via Wikimedia. Vertebrae on the desert sands, photograph by Jolybook via Wikimedia.

Out There is an occasional feature highlighting intriguing art, spaces, places, phenomena, flora, and fauna.

Daisugi Allows Log Harvesting without Killing the Tree

Daisugi is a forestry management technique reminiscent of pollarding and bonsai that produces straight logs without killing the tree. Developed some 600-500 years ago in Japan, it’s still being used to harvest sustainable, durable logs.

Basically, some of the top shoots are pruned so that they’ll grow straight up, and the shoots only are collected when they reach the desired height. It’s not a fast method, as it takes decades to be able to produce logs, but reportedly they come out stronger, more flexible, and knot-free. And the tree stays alive.

Also, the daisugi-managed cedars make amazing shapes in the woods! They would be so interesting in a speculative or fantasy story—or any story, really. Below are a few examples.

Spoon Tamago Yusuke Narita Long Shot
Spoon Tamago Ai Hirakawa Daisugi in Fall
Wikipedia Bernard Gagnon Ryoan-ji Garden

Just another example of how ingenious we people are in manipulating our environment. 🙂

Found via Good Stuff Happened Today on Tumblr.

Images: Long shot by Yusuke Narita via Spoon & Tamago. In the fall by Ai Hirakawa via Spoon & Tamago. Ryoan-ji garden, Kyoto, Japan by Bernard Gagnon via Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 3.0).

In Live and Active Cultures we talk about cultures and cultural differences.

Hoplites, the Chigi Vase, and the Problems of Artistic Sources

Art can be a priceless source of evidence for early history, especially for areas and periods with limited surviving written sources, but, just like texts, artistic sources can be tricky to interpret.

Chigi Vase, reconstructed frieze via Wikimedia (7th c. BCE; painted pottery)

Take, for example, this scene from an archaic Greek vase (commonly known as the Chigi Vase, named for one of its modern owners). It provides us with some of our earliest evidence for Greek hoplites and the phalanx formation. Although we understand a lot about the essentials of how hoplite warfare worked, many questions remain unanswered about the precise details of both how a hoplite battle was fought and how the hoplite style of warfare developed over time. Arguments about these topics often depend in part on interpretations of the Chigi vase.

The vase depicts warriors arming themselves and marching into battle as hoplites. Many of the characteristic features of hoplite armament and warfare are on display: heavily armored fighters with large round shields and spears confronting one another in a head-on clash. We can date the creation of this vase to the seventh century BCE, around the same time that the hoplite style of warfare first appeared, so this artwork offers us crucial evidence about what the earliest phase of hoplite warfare looked like and how early some of its defining features emerged.

We can be fairly confident that the artist who painted the decorations on this vase was familiar with the realities of hoplite warfare. The ranks of the phalanx were filled by small farmers and prosperous crafters, including potters and artists. If the painter of this vase was not well-off enough to have fought as a hoplite themselves, they would certainly have known people who had. At the same time, the images are also artistically stylized in ways that make it hard to be sure how much we can rely on them as evidence.

For example, all the warriors shown on this vase are similarly equipped: they have the helmets, breastplates, greaves, and round shields that we think of as the standard parts of the hoplite panoply. Is this vase evidence that hoplite equipment was standardized from an early period, or did the artist depict a standard set of armor to create a pleasing image at a time when real hoplite gear was more of a hodge-podge with individuals equipping themselves as best they could? This question goes to more than matters of artistic taste: one of the most vexed questions in the history of the hoplite phalanx is whether it developed gradually out of older, less rigorously organized styles of warfare or it was created as a fully-realized concept in some particular place and time. Because hoplite warfare was connected with the rise and subsequent fall of early Greek tyrants, understanding the origins of the hoplite phalanx better would have implications for our understanding of major developments in political and social history. Knowing what the Chigi vase painter had in mind would tell us some important things about the early history of ancient Greece.

Out There is an occasional feature highlighting intriguing art, spaces, places, phenomena, flora, and fauna.