Beautiful poster books

I love colorblock poster art. My living room is decorated with National Parks travel posters and my bathroom bears WPA hygiene posters (which are available free online from the Library of Congress!). In my guest room, I display JPL’s Exoplanet Travel Bureau posters. What can I say, I have a passion!

So I also collect books of such posters. In recent travels, I’ve found two great specimens!

Intergalactic Travel Bureau Vacation Guide to the Solar System

Great art and great science! Each planet has a poster, and often one or two extras. Each section also has info on atmosphere, year length, and more. Great for kids and adults!

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A few of my favorite illustrations:

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See America

A collection of posters for National Parks and historic sites, with posters of places like Big Bend National Park and the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial (i.e., the Gateway Arch in St. Louis). Check out the Creative Action Network website, too, which has posters on all kinds of cool topics and projects.

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A little joyful nonsense

I’ve been joyfully distracted for the last few weeks. After years of digestive distress, my new meds are helping so much that the rhythms of my life are new and spontaneous. Without the burden of constant discomfort, I’m more curious, quicker witted, and less anxious.

One of the great joys this summer is playing water polo and knowing that I won’t spend two days being dysfunctional from the exertion. That joy and my obsession with art deco posters cross-polinated and the result is….

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Book Review: The St. Louis Veiled Prophet Celebration (Thomas Spencer 2000)

Rating: 3.5/5

St. Louis Veiled Prophet Celebration: Power on Parade, 1877-1995 details a strange institution in my hometown of St. Louis, Missouri. The Veiled Prophet celebration was St. Louis’ response to New Orleans’ Mardi Gras. Mardi Gras inverts the social order; the fool is king for a day, and the rich man mingles with the poor man. The Veiled Prophet celebration was created to reinforce the social order, to show the lower classes the differences between them and the leading luminaries. Veiled Prophet details the evolution of this celebration; it began in 1878 in response to a massive labor strike in 1877, and continues to this day, although less overtly political.

WHY THIS BOOK?

Starting in the late 1970s, The Veiled Prophet society organized the Fourth of July celebration in St. Louis. Until 1992, the celebration was called the VP Fair (today it is called Fair St. Louis). When I learned with bafflement that the VP stood for “Veiled Prophet,” I grew curious. The Veiled Prophet society is such an old tradition in St. Louis, but little talked about, due to lack of interest and the elitist threads of the society. But many of the most influential St. Louisans took part in this strange organization; it’s a part of St. Louis history and shapes today’s city. Many of you even know a queen of the Veiled Prophet Ball—Ellie Kemper, perhaps better known as Kimmy Schmidt.

THE GOOD

The Veiled Prophet society, to the extent folks even remember it today, has a reputation for being snobbish and racist. It was unsurprising to learn that the society formed to praise the strong hand of business in the face of labor unrest. (For more about 19th century labor unrest, Death in the Haymarket is a great book; I reviewed it here.)

Initially, the parade anchored the celebration, timed to revive the St. Louis Agricultural and Mechanical Fair in October. It was an attempt, although too late, to compete with Chicago. The Veiled Prophet was a robed man, his face hidden, that oversaw the parade. The first Veiled Prophet was Police Commissioner John Priest, an active foe of the prior year’s labor riots. After Priest voluntarily unveiled himself in 1878, the Prophet’s identity remained secret, revealed only once by a crazed caper in 1972.

The celebration evolved with time. Some decades the parade would be educational, others more lighthearted. With time, the Veiled Prophet Ball became the more important component; at its peak it was covered in minute detail in the local papers, and even broadcast nationally after World War 2. The Veiled Prophet character evolved too. Originally just a title, they eventually added a mythology of an exotic easterner.

The relationship between the organization and the media changed substantially with time as well. The Republic was owned by members of the society, and thus covered the events in detail. More recent coverage has been more critical.

I also enjoyed reading about the people involved, though there was less of this than I would have liked. David R. Francis, the man who brought the Olympics and the World’s Fair to St. Louis, was an active member. One of the first members, Alonzo Slayback, died after a fight with a newspaperman. The 1927 Veiled Prophet queen was, scandalously, already married at the time she became queen, and, even worse, without her father’s permission! In an interview in 1977, she mused that the society still hadn’t gotten over it.

THE BAD

Although Veiled Prophet is meticulously researched, it is fairly dry. It reads like a list of facts and newspaper archives more than a narrative. The roles of the people involved in the society are only lightly sketched. This meant the book was shorter, but less relatable.

Also absent is any local St. Louis history. The World’s Fair, the tornado of 1896, mayoral elections and politics, various strikes—these events do not appear in the book.

The book stays narrowly focused on the Veiled Prophet society, for good or ill. I would have preferred more context. This book is, for the most part, just the facts, and less interpretation than some other works of history.

OVERALL

This book is a 5/5 for content about the society and quality of sources. The writing quality is fine, but the narrow approach of the topic makes it a dry read. For someone interested in St. Louis history, it is well worthwhile. I found it less enjoyable and informative than I had hoped; I wanted to better understand St. Louis history, the Veiled Prophet context in that history, and how St. Louis differed from other cities in this respect. This book doesn’t offer a lot of interpretation for the reader. Not everybody wants that, but I was hoping for it.

Turing Patterns: What do a leopard’s spots, vegetation in arid zones, and the formation of fingers have in common?

Please excuse my inconsistent posting of late, I have been deep down the rabbit hole of science. Last week, I attended the Society of Industrial and Applied Math (SIAM) dynamical systems conference. What fun!

I learned about Turing Patterns, named for mathematician Alan Turing. Complex patterns can arise from the balance between the diffusion of chemicals and the reaction of those chemicals. For this reason, Turing’s model is also called the Reaction-Diffusion model. In general, these kinds of patterns can arise when there’s some kind of competition.

This sounds abstract, but suspected examples in nature abound. Have you ever wondered how the leopard got his spots or what’s behind the patterns on seashells? We often don’t know the chemical mechanisms that produce the patterns, but we can mathematically reproduce them with generic models.

Image from wired.com discussion of Turing patterns.

Mary Silber and her grad student Karna Gowda presented research on Turing patterns in the vegetation of arid regions. When there isn’t enough precipitation to support uniform vegetation, what vegetation will you observe? If there’s too little water, their model yields a vegetation-free desert. Between “not enough” and “plenty” the model generates patterns, from spots to labyrinths to gaps. Their work expands at least two decades worth of study of Turing patterns in vegetation.

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Figure by Karna Gowda, see the full article at SIAM news.

Silber and Gowda considered an area in the Horn of Africa (the bit that juts east below the Middle East). Here, stable patterns in the vegetation have been documented since the 1950s. They wanted to know how the patterns have changed with time. Have the wavelengths between vegetation bands changed? Are there signs of distress due to climate change? By comparing pictures taken by the RAF in the 1950s to recent satellite images, they found that the pattern were remarkably stable. The bands slowly travelled uphill, but they had the same wavelength and the same pattern. They only observed damage in areas with lots of new roads.

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From google maps of the Horn of Africa! I screen-capped this from here.

Turing patterns have even been studied experimentally in zebrafish. Zebrafish stripes might appear stationary, but they will slowly change in response to perturbations. So scientists did just. Below is a figure from the paper. The left shows the pattern on the zebrafish, the right shows the predictions of the model.

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Experimental perturbations to the patterns of zebrafish are well-predicted by the Turing model. Read more in this excellent Science paper.

The model has been used to explain the distribution of feather buds in chicks and hair follicles in mice. Turing’s equations have even been used to explain how fingers form.

If you want to learn more, the links above are a great start. And if you want to play with the patterns yourself, check out this super fun interactive. These waves aren’t stationary like the Turing patterns I described here, but they arise from similar mathematics. The interactive can make your computer work, fyi.

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Reaction-diffusion pattern I generated with this online interactive. It’s super fun!

Vironevaeh

May 31, 2017

My posting has been a bit thin! Between a lingering cold, a new student, and a big conference, my time has been divided. Tomorrow I’ll be posting about Turing Patterns. Alan Turing’s been dead for 63 years, but his name is still alive in the halls of patterns and bifurcations.

Collecting Gardens

My first and favorite subject for photography was flowers. Early on, I struggled with composition, what to include in a wide-angle shot and what to exclude, and how to do this. Flowers were simple subjects; I knew immediately what I wanted my image to look like. This love of flowers has drawn me to many botanical gardens over the years, even as I learned to see more than just the individual flowers. So today, I rooted through my photos and found 10 favorite images from gardens in eight states. Maybe later this summer, I’ll share my own garden!

1. Marie Selby Garden in Sarasota, Florida

Marie Selby specializes in tropical epiphytes, or plants that grow on other plants. Orchids are epiphytes, and the greenhouse is stuffed with them. With no tripods allowed, the lighting conditions are a challenge, but I love seeing the insane variety of orchids.

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Marie Selby Gardens in Sarasota, Florida, specializing in orchids

2. Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis, MO

The Missouri Botanical Garden is one of the oldest in the country, and still a center for research. This is the garden that I wandered through as a child.

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The Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis.

3. The Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden in Richmond, VA

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The Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden in Richmond.

4. The Denver Botanical Garden

High elevation gardening, but with more water than my New Mexico. The Denver Botanical Garden highlights water efficient plants, but it was still mind-blowingly green compared to the high desert.

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5. The Japanese Garden in Portland, Oregon

Humid and covered in moss, Portland’s Japanese Garden feels authentic. It’s beautiful and detailed.

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The Japanese Garden in Portland, Oregon.

6. The Sonoran Desert Museum in Tucson, AZ.

A combined zoo/botanical garden next to Saguaro National Park, the Sonoran Desert Museum is a great place to check out bizarre succulents.

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The Sonoran Desert Museum in Tucson, AZ.

7. The Albuquerque Biopark

My local botanical garden. Living in a desert, you learn to treasure the green spaces. More often than not, I go just to stroll, not to photograph. For me, that’s very rare. I also really enjoy the Japanese Garden, which is definitely not as authentic as Portland’s (we are just not going to grow moss here), but shows how style can be interpreted with a local flavor.

The shrine at the Japanese Garden

8. Chile’s Peach Orchard in Crozet, VA

This view isn’t open to the public, but seeing an orchard in bloom is a beautiful thing.

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Chile’s Peach Orchard in Crozet, Virginia.

9. The Organic Tulip Festival in Madison County, VA

Another garden that you can’t visit anymore. They only sell their bulbs now.

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The Organic Tulip Festival in Madison County, Virginia.

10. Phipp’s Conservatory in Pittsburgh, PA

I’ve been to Pittsburgh about 5 times in the last decade, always in late March or early April. Apparently, it’s not a great time, weatherwise. I don’t think I’ve ever seen the sun there. So I can see how an indoor conservatory like Phipp’s is essential. It’s gorgeous, and right next door to Carnegie Mellon University.

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Phipp’s Conservatory in Pittsburgh, PA.

Western survivors

On my first western trip, I visited Moab in July. We went hiking in 105 degree heat, the sun pounding the ground and anything above it. We learned to respect the desert, because the desert will win.

I always stop and admire the brave stalwarts of the desert—that scraggly tree growing from a forbidding rock face or that little flower, full of color if only briefly. They can never move. They survive or die.

In an ancient landscape shaped by wind and water on continents that no longer exist, the desert plants are ephemeral. Like the ruins of the southwest and our cities, the landscape will outlast them. But they, like us, can be beautiful for their time.

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Scrub at Canyon de Chelly National Monument

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Wildflower in Capitol Reef National Park

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A lone tree at Bryce Canyon National Park

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Wildflower at Zion National Park