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Friday, March 11, 2011

Great-Grandfather Turtle

Six hundred years ago, a rebel leader named Lê Lợi used a magical sword to drive out the Chinese from his country.  He had gotten the blade from a fisherman who found it in his nets.  The blade had no handle but was engraved with the words "According to the will of the Sky".  After he defeated the Chinese he became king in 1428 CE, and settled in the city that is now Hanoi.  One day he was boating on a lake and a giant turtle emerged from the water.  Terrified, the king drew his sword, but the turtle moved quickly and the sword fell into the lake.  The king thought that the turtle must be the true owner of the magic sword, which had only been lent to him.  Now that the kingdom was restored and there was peace, it was time that the sword was returned to its divine owner.

Hoan Kiêm Lake with the Turtle Tower.

This is the legend of Hoan Kiêm, the Lake of the Restored Sword.  Every schoolchild in Vietnam learns this story.  The lake once was the home of now endangered turtles known as the Red River giant softshell turtle, or Rafetus Swinhoei.  Called "Cu Rua", a word of great respect reserved for great-grandfathers, what is believed to be the last one in Hanoi has been the focus of a trapping attempt.

It is considered a sign of good luck to see the turtle, which formerly was infrequently.  Lately, however, it is surfacing more and more often.  That is not a problem in itself, but the cause for alarm is the visible open wounds on its head, neck, and legs.  There are lesions on its shell, which is also covered with a white fungus.

While rumor has it that this is the same turtle who took the magic sword six hundred years ago, experts believe this turtle to be somewhere in the vicinity of 80 - 100 years old.  Their life expectancy is about 175 years.  This turtle is estimated to be about 400 pounds, and is almost six feet long by four feet wide.  Think of a large desk.

There are only four such turtles left in the world.  Another is in Vietnam, and two - a breeding pair - are in Suzhou Zoo in China, where it is hoped they will breed. Although the turtles are said to have once been abundant in Hoan Kiêm Lake, there is only this one left.  This is a result of a lack of foresight and disregard for the environment that runs rampant the world over.  The banks of this lake have been cemented, as seen in the above picture.  The banks are where the turtles once deposited their eggs.  The lake has been polluted and for years a clean-up procedure has been implemented.  It is still polluted, with debris and raw sewage.

Some believe the injuries spotted on the turtle are the result of it brushing up on the sharp edges of some the debris - bricks and concrete blocks have been found. Others think they may be from red-eared turtles that people let loose in the lake when they tire of them as pets.  The lake is only about five feet deep, but the bottom is a thick layer of sludge containing industrial pollutants.

Turtle Tower is built on a small islet in the lake.  Once the turtle would crawl up on the banks and rest, but a solid embankment was built that prevented the turtle from reaching the islet.  By making the islet accessible once again, it is hoped that the turtle could be lured there.  A rectangular enclosure has been set up in the water at one end to serve as a hospital, with a filtered water tank.  Once placed there, samples of its skin and shell will be taken to determine what treatment is called for.

Turtle Tower.  Image courtesy of Jon Rawlinson/Wikipedia.

There is a question of whether the stress and capture will further weaken the turtle, but experts believe that it is necessary to physically evaluate the turtle.  So far it has resisted attempts, and even escaped from the nets that were trying to capture it. The campaign continues, and people are traveling from afar to see the process.

Image courtesy of Brian D. Horne/Wildlife Conservation Society.

Turtles are an emblem of longevity in cultures all over the world, including Vietnam.  There is a Confucian temple in Vietnam called Văn Miếu, which was established in 1070 CE.  It holds stele that sit on stone turtles and are inscribed with the names and birthplaces of men who were awarded doctorates at the Imperial Academy between 1484 and 1780.  There are other legends of sacred turtles in addition to Lê Lợi.

The Confucian temple in Hanoi with steles supported by turtles.
Image courtesy of Daniel Vaulot via Wikipedia.

The world is watching to see what becomes of Great-Grandfather Turtle. Hopefully he will be safely trapped and healed, and the efforts to deal with the lake's pollution will be successful.  May this auspicious turtle and all other endangered species survive the thoughtlessness of human beings!
Unless otherwise stated, all images courtesy of the Associated Press.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Snice and Cool!

Snice.  Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

The love child of snow and ice, "snice" is what holds together an amazing concept in hostelry - the ice hotel.  The destination hotels for spunky travelers looking for only the coolest places, the walls, fixtures, and fittings are held together by snice, which serves as mortar.

Inside the ice hotel at Jukkasjärvi.  Image by Tom Corser via Wikipedia.

Ice hotels are reconstructed each year.  Most construct everything out of ice - furniture, bar glasses, even plates, not to mention sculptures.  Different ice artists may be employed each year, which is fitting.  The very concept grew out of an ice sculpture exhibition.

Main hall at Jukkasjärvi, 2007, sculpture by Jörgen Westin.
Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

The first ice hotel was built in 1990 in Sweden.  The prior year a group of Japanese artists created an exhibit of ice art.  The next year a French artist held an exhibition in an igloo.  When there literally was no room at the inn, visitors asked to sleep in the igloo exhibition hall, which they were allowed to do.  Thus a new idea was born.

The "Banished Dragon" suite at Jukkasjärvi by Valli Schafer & Barra Cassidy, 2008
Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

The ice hotel in Jukkasjärvi, Sweden is made of ice blocks and snow from the Torne River.  Each year it opens in its first phase at the beginning of December, and each week a new phase opens until the beginning of January when the hotel is completed.  It's a lot of work for a few months of use, but that's part of the charm.

The Nautical Room at the Quebec ice hotel.  Image courtesy Hôtel de Glace, Quebec.

North America's first ice hotel opened New Year's Day in 2001.  Built on the outskirts of Quebec City,  Hôtel de Glace is constructed in Duchesnay Resort. Each year it is built for an early January opening, stays open for three months, then is demolished in April.

Image courtesy of Hôtel de Glace, Quebec.

It takes 60 workers 1-1/2 months to erect it, with 15,000 tons of snow and 500,000 tons of ice.  The walls are four feet thick.  Only the bathrooms are heated, and they are located in a separate insulated structure.  This was the first ice hotel to make beds and other furnishings out of ice.  The hotel has a wedding chapel for any interested parties who want to make their vows in a unique setting.

Tables and chairs made of ice at Lainio Snow Village.  Image courtesy of the site.

Finland has Lainio Snow Village in Lapland.  Construction begins on it the end of October/beginning of November when the temperature drops to -14 degrees F. 330 tons of ice and 1,650 tons of snow are used.  The design changes each year. Besides the ice art, one can sit in the biggest ice dome in Europe, eat at the restaurant, and even spend the night.

A welcoming bed at Lainio Snow Village, image courtesy of the site.

This year is the 10th creation, and it will be open until April 15th.  You can go on a snowmobile safari, a one-day husky safari, or visit a reindeer farm.  Sleeping there is optional, but looks delightful.

There are many ice hotels now, including a few in Norway.  But one that is suprising is in Romania.  Built in 2006, it is in the 
Făgăraş Mountains at an altitude of 2,034 meters.  Because it is so remote, it is accessible only by cable car.  It is next to Bâlea Lake, and usually is built in December and melts in late April/early May. Local artists produce sculptures in the style of Constantin Brancusi, the Romanian artist.

A room at the Lake Bâlea Ice Hotel, image courtesy of the site.

The Lake Bâlea Ice Hotel is Romanian-owned and also has an Ice Church.  There are all kinds of activities offered, including heliskiing for the courageous skiiers. An interesting adventure for those travelers looking for something unusual in a unique setting.
The Ice Church, image courtesy of the site.

By the way, snice is edible.  I'd stay away from yellow snice, though.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

# = Punctuation with an Identity Crisis

Courtesy of Andrew Barr for the National Post.

It's the number sign.  It's the pound sign.  It's the hashmark, hash mark, hash tag, hashtag, or hash key.  It's the octothorp, octothorpe, octathorp, or octatherp.  It's a tic-tac-toe frame.  It's a musical sharp symbol.  It's a hex key.  It's a space key for editing. It has mathematical, computing, and topographical import.  It can even mean "checkmate".  It has many more meanings as well.

Just as email gave the @ symbol a new purpose, so twitter has given the # symbol a new function.  Tweeters use it to catalog their tweets, and thus are able to build interest-based communities.  #fridayreads and #ff followed by a space and an @ sign will send the message out to your intended audience and group themselves respectively.  Used in front of a subject, you don't have to wade through similar words or phrases to find all the tweets on that subject.  It's known as a hashtag on twitter.

Logo for twitter.

Before twitter most of us used it to denote a number ("I like #2 pencils"), or punched it on the telephone when communicating with frustrating machinated voice directives.  On touch-tone phones in the United States it's called the pound key.  In the U.S. we also use it to denote "pound" as a unit of weight.

Image courtesy of The Guardian.

But in the UK the term "pound sign" refers to - £ - the currency symbol for a pound sterling, and never a unit of weight.  There the abbreviation "lb" is used to denote weight, which comes from the Latin libra pondo meaning "a pound of weight".

As for octothorp and its spelling variations, the "octo" is pretty obvious:  there are eight points to the figure.  There are several explanations for the "thorp/thorpe/therp" part.  It could be meant to honor the 18th century British general, James Oglethorpe, founder of the colony of Georgia (per the American Heritage Dictionary).  A more intriguing explanation is that it comes for a symbol on old maps for a village - the center being the village square with eight plots surrounding it (per the British journal New Scientist, 1996).

James Edward Oglethorpe by Alfred Edmund Dyer, circa 1735-1736.
Image courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, London.

But the most popular story is that it was invented by Bell Labs engineers who wanted to honor Native American athlete Jim Thorpe, a winner/non-winner/winner of the 1912 Olympics pentathlon and decathlon (read up on him, it's interesting). The Bell system is credited with bestowing the name "octothorp" in 1974 (per the OED).

Jim Thorpe at the 1912 Olympics.
Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Despite its similarity to the musical sharp notation - ♯ - there are differences.  The sharp sign must have slanted parallel horizontal lines (rising from left to right)  The number/octo/whatever sign must have perpendicular parallel horizontal lines. Perpendicular vertical lines must be in the sharp sign, while the number sign can have true vertical or slanted ones.  In this way the number sign can have an italic appearance.

From relative obscurity as a punctuation mark, like its buddies &, © and ®, it now enjoys long-lost popularity.  No need to ever design new marks when the old ones can be re-purposed.  Hence it gives hope for a renaissance of punctuation forms. 

For an interesting read on the pilcrow, check out Keith Houston's blog.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Screwing Around With Books

"For Stuart Callan, 1962 - 2005", 2005, paper and screws, approx. 11.5' x 12.75' x 1.3'
Courtesy of  The Mattress Factory, Pittsburg
Close up of above work.

Well, that's what Jonathan Callan does.  The internationally famous artist uses books as a sculptural medium, screwing masses of books together.  He also uses paper, glue, plaster, silicone, rubber and other things in his creations.  Although he makes many different forms of sculpture, his used books ones are phenomenal.

"Neon", 2007, paper and screws.

An avid reader, Callan was also "drawn" to art.  Combining the two seemed a natural way for him to go.  Recycling old books as art materials that have had previous lives is how Callan expresses himself.  Born in Deptford, England, which is close to where Christopher Marlowe was murdered, he came from a literary background.  For the last fifteen years, however, his world has changed to a visual one.

"Mass", 2003, silicone, rubber and paper.
How many of you have felt this way about a particular book?

"Rational Snow", 2002, aerated concrete, wood, book, approx. 8" x 11 x 19"
Private collection, courtesy of the artist.

His "supplies" come from libraries, used book stores, and flea markets.  Most of the books he uses would be pulped, so by using them for his art he is recycling them and giving them new purpose.  In some places where he has built sculptures, the books are donated by the local people, and are collected for him to use.  A fifteen-foot high sculpture with an organic shape will use about 3,000 books.

"The Defrauder", 2006, paper and screws.
"The Library of Past Choice", 2007, paper and screws, approx. 19' x 12' x 2'
Courtesy of the Grusenmeyer Art Gallery.

The books - phone books, soft cover, hard cover, magazines - are folded over and held together with wood screws.  In some of his pieces he colors the edges with watered-down paint so it will seep into the edges.  A large sculpture, with one person helping, can take two weeks, working twelve hours a day.

"Politics", paper and screws.

His pieces aren't made to last forever, though.  Most of the books he uses are made of wood pulp which is acidic and deteriorates in time.  His pieces are about the process of becoming however, and he has stated that he's disappointed when he's done, not in the piece but that the making of it is over.  He enjoys the process.

"The Theoretical Assumptions of Management", 2008,
 approx. 3.3' x 3.3' x 1.4', courtesy of the Kudlek van Grinten Galerie.

Books are competing with electronic reading but they are stalwart warriors:  they have overcome burnings and bannings.  The tomes in Callan's work are like a meeting of the minds; a celebration of the physicality of the written word.  Using books as a skeletal framework, concepts of their meaning, import, and history can be physically and mentally reimagined.