Monday, September 23, 2013

Bio-Art: Lisa Black.

So, before I went to Canada, I ditched my smart phone. At first, it felt like I was a little lost at sea, but then I realized something: no, I was not lost, I had been freed. Since then, I've felt more creative and happy without the phone than I was with it. The experience has also made me more aware that more and more people are slowly becoming little more than cyborgs, unable to lead normal lives without some electronic whosiwhatzit.

Then Lisa Black reminded me that I will be assimilated, and resistance is futile.

Hasta la vista, Bambi. 

Born in Auckland, New Zealand in 1982, Lisa Black does plenty of work that reminds us how terrifying or beautiful the future can be. The idea behind many of her pieces forces viewers to question the relationship between, and eventual integration of, nature with technology. This does not mean animals with iPods. It means that we have to face the inevitable reconsideration of our definition of "natural."

There are two main types of cyborg animals on Lisa Black's production line: "Departed" and "Fixed." The "Departed" pieces feature various animal skulls with various cybernetic bits - gears, wires, etc. - attached. The "Fixed" series hits a bit harder, integrating various mechanical parts with more or less whole animal bodies. The very use of the word "Fixed" also suggests that what was already natural wasn't 100% perfect to begin with - and, admittedly, it usually isn't.

Another thing Lisa Black does involves found butterflies preserved forever as jewelry. While not as jarring as her cyborgs, these are still pretty cool pieces. For those not aware, dead butterflies are extremely fragile creatures. They are nonetheless beautiful, causing many a butterfly to be put behind glass in order to preserve it. At least they get out there as wearables, here. See them and more at this page, which also shows off the cyborg beasts and skulls. 

I'm going to (mis)quote my bio-art book when I say, "mankind has evolved to manipulate evolution." Indeed, maybe a reconsideration of nature's sanctity is in order after these dozens of millennia mankind has been on Earth. Dogs aren't really natural given how much we've meddled with them; neither is corn.That still doesn't mean that we should all be glued to our iPhones just because they're the future.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Creature Feature: Vasa Parrots.

Oh! A Creature Feature! It's been a while, hasn't it? Let's look at the weirdest parrot you've eeeeveer seen:

This long-legged, uncanny parrot is a Greater Vasa parrot (Coracopsis vasa). Vasa parrots of all species are native to Madagascar (AKA "that African island with lemurs that got a movie series." Yes, you can get them as pets, but please do your homework.

First of all, these parrots are black. Not gray like an African Gray, not iridescent - gray-black. It's not glossy black, like a crow, but more of a matte black - charcoal black, if you will. That's virtually the last color one expects from a parrot. The pinkish bill stands out, too, making for a striking bird on the whole.

Vasas are thought to be among the most primitive of parrots. Some of you who keep up with animal news might remember a deal a while back when it was found that not all "raptors" - that is, eagles, falcons, hawks, and owls - were related. In fact, parrots are quite closely related to falcons, and the vasa's got some pretty good evidence of this, starting with being a hunting parrot. Females are also larger and dominant, as they are in birds of prey. They also have another very primitive trait that I will get to later, but

Then these parrots start showing their mating colors. What, do I mean that the black suddenly erupts into multicolored plumage? Oh, I wish; vasa parrots have a much stranger mating patterns. Mating groups are open, to say the least, with any given female having 3-8 males in her non-exclusive manharem. The skin of the female turns yellow-orange beneath her feathers while she's tending young...and then she becomes bald so that everybody can see it:

Vasa are also the only parrots to have hemipenes. The cloaca, usually dickless, everts when the birds are mating. The lock can last for up to an hour. That's probably more than you ever wanted to know about parrot sex, but there you go. 

Monday, September 16, 2013

Bio-Art: Omnivore.

Remember the bargain bin ?I found another thing in the same bin that proved to have enough merit for an entry. Piers Anthony's Omnivore is marketed as a sci-fi classic, but I had never heard of it, and thought it could not be that bad for just a couple bucks.

Omnivore tells the story of a government agent seeking information on a certain alien planet. To find this information, he ventures into a small community near a forest. There he finds the last three survivors of a trip to Nacre, an alien planet with a unique ecology, who slowly divulge more and more about their experiences. It was written in 1968, and is the first in a trilogy.

"Alien ecology?" Sign me up! Let's take a look at Nacre's ecology and see what we can see. 

The ecology of Nacre is interesting, to say the least. There are no plants. Almost everything is some sort of fungus. They still need water (and can hold it, as a spongy fungus demonstrates), but that's still creative. A lot of research went into creating something so creative and believable, yet alien. Props to the author; you can learn a lot about yeasts, drugs, and Earth ecology by reading Omnivore.

The other lifeforms on the planet are, well, far more bizarre. The animals have all evolved to have amazing eyesight in their one eye, and have exactly one foot. The only herbivores are little, fluffy things with gills that help them process the spore-saturated air. The main carnivores, the "mantas," are strange, manta-like creatures that can flatten themselves into discs and fly in the thicker air as if it were water. The titular omnivore is a nightmarish creature with tentacles and an eyeless snake of a tail. What they lack in diversity, they compensate for in strangeness and creativity.

Compare this to, say, Pandora. There's a lot of life there, but it's all identifiable. Everything there is very Earth-like. There's even a gorgeous humanoid species for us to identify with. It's more like Pandora's an idealized Earth...with dragons. It's really up to you which type of alien ecology you prefer, but I have to give Anthony a cookie for trying something truly different. It's certainly alien.

Unfortunately, Omnivore has something in common with Avatar: both are really heavy on the environmentalism. Factory farming comes up in Omnivore. It's pretty darn clear that humans being omnivores is a bad thing. Conspiracy theorists will find plenty to chew on. Even if the ecology isn't diverse, the messages get across pretty clearly, with very little to get in the way and a lot to think about. It's worth a read, if nothing else. Orn, the next book in the series, has been considered an improvement regardless.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

"They Actually Eat That:" Japan and Soft Serve Ice Cream.

While in Quebec, there was certainly plenty of weird food to pick on. They had pate of elk and bison. Among my finds was maple syrup soft serve ice cream, located alongside maple syrup everything else. Not only was it delicious, but it brought back memories of Japan, of all places.

If China is the nation that eats everything, Japan is the nation that puts everything in ice cream. Specifically, they love soft-serve ice cream - and when I say love, I mean 大好きです!Yes, they are so fond of soft-serve ice cream in particular that "soft cream" has its own holiday. It has a million flavors to choose from, but a few of them are definitely only in Japan.

Let me make this perfectly clear: I do not hate any of the flavors presented below. In fact, I have tried quite a few of them and have to admit that Japan may be onto something. Soft serve in Japan is a very happy memory for me. Even the cheap flavors in the kiosks work quite well. Behold: vanilla, sweet potato, and green tea soft serve!

Source, but these are not hard to find.

Weird though some of the flavors may be, Japan knows what it is doing when it comes to ice cream. Most of the mixes they make actually taste good. Green tea, for example, is actually not bad mixed with cream and vanilla; think a green tea Frappucino in ice cream form. Even flavors like scallop can be pretty good. Yes, you read that right: scallop-flavored ice cream.

The source says it's pretty good, too.

There may actually be a reason beyond weird for these ice cream flavors, however. Often, these "weird" flavors pop up in rural areas. Local flavors of whatever suddenly become local flavors of ice cream as a sort of advertising for tourists. This accumulation of weird flavors in the countryside is very true; my trip to Iwakuni yielded an ice cream shop with 99 flavors, among other things.

Unlike some things that Japan does, I hope this catches on. It's harmless, delicious, and helps support local businesses. Please don't make ice cream out of Chicago deep dish or hot dogs, though. Just make a Garrett's soft serve blend with bits of popcorn in and all will be well. I'd totally buy that- hint hint.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

"They Actually Eat That:" Poutine.

Early on Friday, I'll be headed into Canada. Specifically, I'll be in Quebec, putting years of French into practice. They also seem to have some exotic meats, including things like reindeer, so expect an entry on whatever my curious tongue happens to find. Thanks to the interwebs, I have a fair amount of Canadian friends, too. One of them recommended this:

My first thought: "You sure this isn't from Wisconsin? Looks like something they'd do."
Poutine is not from Wisconsin, but is a distinctly Quebecois dish. The recipe is simple: fries, cheese curds, gravy on the whole thing. It started somewhere in rural Quebec, then spread throughout Canada. Even people who don't like French people love poutine. 

Indeed, poutine is not French. Even though French fries are, well, not quite French (they were invented in Belgium, but French cuisine does use them), one look at this dish tells me that poutine is American. One of the popular origins of the word "poutine" is "pudding" - as in, this is a dish that makes you fat. Another is linked to the idea that the food will make a big mess - again, not something I can picture the French advertising. It also just looks so darn close to our disgusting cheese fries that I cannot unsee the similarity. Hopefully it tastes a lot better, using fresh cheese curds instead of artificially-colored "cheese."

The exact origins of poutine are a mystery. Everybody and their mother claims that they thought of poutine. We think it came from Drummondville, Quebec. At least, that's one of the places with a yearly festival devoted to cheese, gravy, and fries. The term has been used to describe gravy, cheese, and fries since 1978.

Then the dish became insanely popular. In a poll of the top ten Canadian inventions, poutine was ranked at #10, beating out the BlackBerry and the electron microscope. Canadians seek out poutine whenever they travel. It may as well be Canada's national junk food at this point.

Even if you can't make it to Canada, chances are there's a variation of cheese fries around you if you live in the Western hemisphere. It sounds good, if fattening, and I look forward to trying it.  It may be 740 calories, but sounds well worth trying at least once. I'm not saying it's bad; I'm saying I haven't tried it yet.