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17 Dec 12:51

Holidays & Days of Note for December 17, 2014. *   First...

Holidays & Days of Note for December 17, 2014.

*   First Day of Hanukkah (Jewish) 

*   International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers (U. S.)

*   Wright Brothers Day, (U.S.) a federal observance by Presidential proclamation

*   Saturnalia (Ancient Rome) Seven day celebration dedicated to Saturn in ancient Rome. It was marked by tomfoolery, mayhem, merriment and the reversal of social roles, in which slaves and masters ostensibly switched places. It’s where many of the things we call Christmasy come from. Which is a little odd as Saturn was not the most chipper of Gods.

13 Dec 10:00

The Lake Wobegon Effect. Where “all the children are above...

The Lake Wobegon Effect.

Where “all the children are above average.” From the intro by Garrison Keillor to the News from Lake Wobegon on the radio show A Prairie Home Companion. Also known as illusory superiority. From the popular studies where, for example, 80% of people think they are above average drivers, when asked to estimate the % of chores done in the household it adds up to more than 100%, and we overestimate our input to project work and it’s impact on its success. For the best treatment I’ve read, and references, see Thinking Fast and Slow by Dan Kahneman.

14 Dec 08:00

Weltanschauung: Word of the Day

Weltanschauung: a comprehensive conception or image of the universe and of humanity's relation to it.
08 Dec 05:00


A new study finds that if you give rats a cell phone and a lever they can push to improve the signal, the rats will chew on the cell phone until it breaks and your research supervisors will start to ask some questions about your grant money.
24 Nov 22:17

If Nobody Ever Asks For Your Ideas You May Not Realize Some Ideas Are Better Than Others

by Zak S
Sometimes you read people on-line--you read their game blog or in a forum or whatever--and you think: this is the first time anyone has ever listened to you about anything, isn't it? Some handle it with grace, and it's cool to see. Some don't--but they don't in a very specific way.


If people often seriously ask you for your opinion and then go do something with your opinion that affects something, then you might start to think of opinions as affecting things.

If nobody ever seriously asks for your opinion, then you might not think of your opinion as carrying much weight or affecting anything.


If you think of your opinion as affecting things, you might be incentivized start to try to make sure it makes sense.

If you don't think of it as carrying much weight or affecting anything, you might not be incentivized to think too hard about trying to make sure it makes sense.

("Makes sense"--that is: matches what you know or could find out.)


If you try to make sure your opinion makes sense, you might think of opinions in general as things people have thought out and really believe.

If you don't think too hard about whether your opinion makes sense, you probably think of opinions in general as inherently provisional things that you usually keep to yourself because they're not thought out.

(Like: if you don't think too hard about your opinions or value them much, your opinion of who is smarter might be, in your mind, about as meaningful as who is wearing a better shirt. The idea that one might be a thing you could go figure out and check on and the other isn't might never occur to you, if nobody much ever did anything based on your opinions anyway.)


If you think of opinions in general as things people have thought out, you'll tend to think of sharing opinions as basically just polite.

If you think of opinions inherently as provisional things people usually keep to themselves because they're not thought out, you probably think of sharing one as a bold, confident act.


If you're used to thinking of opinions as things people have thought out, someone sharing an opinion is (baseline) helpful, good, productive, polite, respectful, necessary and…inherently to be challenged by other opinions. And all subject to fact and being thought out.

If you think of sharing your opinion as a bold, confident act then someone saying what they're thinking is risky to everyone involved--it is asking for things to be put at risk, it is asking for people to make themselves vulnerable. After all--everyone risks revealing their opinion is not thought out, don't they?


You see people who seem shocked and alarmed not just to have their opinion contested (which is strangely common) but to be asked at all. This is frequently followed by a diatribe about how unimportant they are--as if that were the point. 

If people often seriously ask you for your opinion you won't see that request as hostile and won't see why people do.

If nobody ever seriously asks your opinion you may be scared. It's not just that you can't handle a conversation about your ideas, it's that you misunderstand why you're being asked to have one.

27 Nov 06:54

stuffbhappenin: Holidays and Days of Note for November 27,...


Holidays and Days of Note for November 27, 2014

*   Thanksgiving (U.S.) The point being that the real reason for Thanksgiving was not a harvest festival founded by the pilgrims, but a way of bringing the United States back together, North, South, rich, poor, and different cultures after a great riff that almost destroyed the country.

The idea is that as everyone celebrates it, everyone is brought together.

However if, as we have now, it is becoming the poor working on this day, so the dwindling middle-class can go out in a wild buying frenzy, so the top of top of the monetary food chain can become wealthier still then we are not just forgetting the meaning of Thanksgiving we’re saying the true original meaning as intended by Abraham Lincoln can go to hell.

*   Pins and Needles Day (U.S) The origin of this day goes back to the labor movement in the 1930s. The pro-labor Broadway musical Pins and Needles, opened on this day in 1937, at the Labor Stage Theater in New York City. This play was written by Harold Rome. It was produced by the International Ladies Garment Workers’ Union. Union members made up the cast. It ran for 1108 performances, once holding the record for longevity. The idea of the day now is to support the labor movement with creative efforts.

*   Lancashire Day (England) Day to celebrate the English county of Lancashire. Because of reasons. 

27 Nov 03:19


25 Nov 14:10

Win a free book! Heck, win TWO free books!

Hey guys! There's a contest at the writing blog. It's stupidly easy to enter. Just take a picture of a Post-It with the words "GIMME BOOK!" on it, and link to it in the comments.

Hopefully this'll be fun. We all need a little extra joy today.
31 Oct 16:25

Michael Penna happy halloween from the flux machine!

Michael Penna

happy halloween from the flux machine!

13 Oct 14:05

sennethbrassenthwaite: World Thrombosis Day is October 13th. ...

by joberholtzer


World Thrombosis Day is October 13th.  And since I’m likely to forget this when it’s actually the official “day”, here’s the infographic that was posted on the WTD website.

As a personal story to this, I had my first PE while I was in my early 20s, I was on oral birth control pills.  I had a second PE after treatment for the first one, and I had genetic testing that showed I was heterozygous for Factor V Leiden, the most common of genetic clotting disorders.  I was put on blood thinner and had an inferior vena cava filter put in to prevent further PE that may come from DVTs in my legs.  However, due to other health issues, I was taken off blood thinner for a while, and I developed a DVT, which then clotted my filter, and the clot on the filter broke off and became a very large PE, which very nearly killed me.  I am now on lifelong blood thinner, and I haven’t had any further blood clots.

It’s incredibly important for people to know the risks and signs of blood clots, and how to prevent them.  Prior to having one, I was only vaguely aware of the fact PEs and DVTs were a thing, and I didn’t really know the symptoms.

More resources: 

National Blood Clot Alliance

Clot Connect

ClotCare Online Resource

International Society on Thrombosis and Haemostasis

Vascular Disease Foundation

Office of Rare Diseases Research

07 Oct 05:01

Writers Write! – DORK TOWER 07.10.14

by John Kovalic

Super Happy Writer's Life Fun Hour

And because folks have asked for this in poster/mug/t-shirt form:

Screen Shot 2014-10-09 at 10.10.21 AM

Also, there’s Free Worldwide Shipping on everything at the Dork Store until midnight, Sunday!

08 Oct 04:00


People often say that same-sex marriage now is like interracial marriage in the 60s. But in terms of public opinion, same-sex marriage now is like interracial marriage in the 90s, when it had already been legal nationwide for 30 years.
04 Oct 12:27

…and Gygax Saw The Angel

by Zak S
"...and he saw the angel of the LORD standing in the way, and his sword drawn in his hand: and he bowed down his head, and fell flat on his face."
-Numbers 22:

Redoing the Monster Manual some more…
click to enlarge
Angels (split into deva, planetar and solar and all barely distinguishable) come right after the aboleth in the manual and have a similar problem--since they, too, strongly rely on a monotheism for their impact. Plus they're good which means there aren't a lot of reasons to fight them. But I got this.


Our plane of existence is sentient. It knows it exists and can see itself.

It's also, naturally, 4-dimensionally aware--it can see all of time at once, and thus all of cause and effect.

So there's none of this "noticing something's wrong and sending an angel down from heaven to address it" that's strictly 3-dimensional thinking. The Prime Material Plane is and has always been aware of any potential problems.

What possible problems could there be? The Plane is existence itself, right? (Echo of an old philosophical problem: why would God need to do anything like a miracle or sending an angel down if the universe works exactly how he wanted it to work?) Surely everything that happens in it is part of the Plane.

Well, almost: The Prime Material Plane can see all of itself as a kind of 4-dimensional sculpture from the inside, with breaks in it where threats from other planes intrude on or threaten it. It can't see those other planes directly, they are not of its substance). The plane can just see where they are interfering with it--the same way that from the inside of a tin can you can't see who's kicking it, but you might see the dent.

So, from the beginning of time, angels have been seeded by the Plane itself to be in exactly the appropriate moment in space-time to address these "dents". Angels are not sent, they simply arise at the right moment.

This conveniently means the angel isn't necessarily a totally useless good guy in the game so much as something dedicated to maintaining the integrity of the Plane. So if players are involved in anything that frays the barriers between planes, then they have to deal with an angel. For example, an angel might mature and manifest at the exact moment the players are about to cross a barrier to the Astral Plane or summon an particularly powerful elemental creature.

Notes in red on the picture:

1. Over by the red 1 I put the three most common manifestations--(i.e. where angels come from): a human can discover they are an angel (typically a paladin that reaches 21st level at exactly the right moment),  a statue can come to life (not unlike a gargoyle's relation to a demon), or an animal can evolve into an angel.

2. Angels in the game typically have a whole laundry-list of resistances and immunities which I simplified to a more mythic rule: Angels can't be hurt by anything from our plane. I'd assume most magic is mostly manipulating things from our plane (fireballs, shadows) but summoned demons (and the weapons they carry and that grow from their bodies) aren't, and a lot of magic items aren't. Clerical magic that manipulates stuff from our plane (lightning, ice) can't hurt them, but anything that channels divine power directly can.

3. Rather than use the Deva, Planetar, Solar hierarchy--which is just one of those "Remember when you fought these guys 4 levels ago? Well here's a tougher one!" hierarchies and replaced it with the Hebrew one--10 ranks of angels from Ishim to Chayot with corresponding HD levels. Added bonus is that tradition assigns many of these angels freaky characteristics like the Chayot has six wings and is covered in eyes. Bonus to using Hebrew mystic names: you can name them ominous things like "Angel of Six Roads" "Angel of Hypothermia" "Angel of Subtraction".

4. Angels carry shields (I know because St Michael does in all the paintings). The shield makes the angel immune to all divine magic. It only works for angels and demons, so stealing it doesn't steal the power, it just deprives them of it.

5. I also figure there are weird things that just happen around angels. Call them Aura Actions? Like animals start singing, etc.

Most of the given combat profile is fine as far as it goes (it's a tough guy with wings), though I decided the flaming arrows and sword that fights by itself were dead cheesy.

I think each individual angel should probably be custom-made with extra powers for its purpose and where it appears. Add slightly modified demon traits if the specific situation doesn't suggest abilities on its own.

03 Oct 10:03

The Metapsychotic System of the Aboleth

by Zak S
Still redoing my Monster Manual...
Click to enlarge
I never really liked the old aboleth, they seemed like ham-fisted attempts at Lovecraftiana, but I like the new illustration, especially when I added in a tiny guy for scale.

Other things:

-Beefed up the physical stats across the board and added a swallow attack to reflect the increased size.

-I never liked the "covers people in slime to enslave them" gimmick--it made it seem too much like the aboleth A) Gave a fuck either way about people B) Had physical tasks they actually needed people for--neither of which seems too Lovecraftian.  You don't want them to be just mean psychic whales. The Manual, however, has a schtick which suggests being unable to breath air is just a disease transmitted as a side effect of being near the aboleth-- which I like very much. I also decided that it drains color out of nearby fish.

-The manual has some good "regional actions" and "lair actions" (things you'd expect to happen around an aboleth)--slime everywhere and delusions--I transferred these from the next page so I could see them all at once plus added a few more.

-I gave the pools in the aboleth's lair the ability to dissolve people into liquid memories--stolen from a Legion of Super Heroes comic and Genesis Pits--stolen from the Invid.

-Noted also they're related to the Philosopher species somehow--mind flayers, etc.

-I added 4 kinds of possible lairs and some allied species--cannibal mermaids and sea elves.

I figure aboleths are some kind of lesser Old One or spawn thereof, not actually the big cahuna but something close. They probably each have names and take slightly different forms.

Interpreted as Lovecraftian, Aboleths (and, no matter how you interpret them, the next creature in the Monster Manual--Angels) introduce the concept of belief systems.

Now, systems...
There is a terrifying difference between strings of random phenomena and systems.

From True Detective:

Marty: Shit, man, this dude in New Orleans cut up his girl, felt remorse, tried to piece her back together with Krazy Glue.

Rust: That's just drug insanity. Ah, that's not this. This has scope. Now, she articulated a personal vision. Vision is meaning. Meaning is historical. Look, she was just chum in the water, man.

I believe there's a plastic sack of thick and greyish liquid hanging from a steel pole at the foot of the bed. That's a belief.

I believe it's the nutrient gunk the doctors gave Mandy when she came out of the hospital and when she has her feeding tube in, she has to have it or she'll die. That's a belief system.

A belief just sits there. A system makes demands. You put in an input and out comes an output and you have to do it. So a bad system is very bad.

So they find the dead girl in True Detective, she's been systematized:
"Ideas what any of this means? [Scoffs] I don't know."

"And it's all primitive. It's like cave paintings. Maybe you ought to talk to an anthropologist."

"[Sighs] Lot of trouble this guy went to. Seems real personal."

"I don't think so. Was iconic, planned and in some ways, it was impersonal. Think of the blindfold."

…and that's why it's scary. The system the psychotic is working on here is bigger than a personal reason to kill one person. And that system is enigmatic. It implies two scary things:
-This could happen again
-You may have walked into the system and not even know it

What happens when you're in an enigmatic system? Well suddenly everything you do has a secret meaning you don't know about. Your every action is suddenly loaded with potentially awful significance. As is everything around you.

This is Lovecraftian--and Lovecraft was, as is often noted, not real great about recording or modelling the variety of human personalities. His creatures and intimations doom us all equally.

Kenneth Hite's remarks on such systems:
"…the purest form of cosmic horror, what Lovecraft summed up as the 'idiot god Azathoth,' or what Tim Powers evokes with the djinn in Declare— an intelligence so foreign, so inaccessible, that it can only appear mad or idiotic to us despite its immensity. "

The aboleth, being the closest thing in the Manual to an Old One, has to incarnate this immensity. This is much harder in D&D than in Call of Cthulhu. In Cthulhu there's already an implied understanding of the relevance of psychotic systems to the players: the players know they will discover a murder or a distortion in reality, the players know this will be the work of a thing or the agents of a thing, the layers know there will be knowledge (books, cryptic markings) and these will relate to the thing, and they know the thing, when confronted, will be terrible. A paranoia about being embedded in an awful system is right there on the character sheet from the moment of character creation: Cthulhu Mythos: 1%.

In D&D, the intimations that surround a Lovecraftian leviathan are cheek by jowl with intimations of marauding goblins and intimations of Tiamat and intimations of Loki and every other horror-myth-complex around. If the clues don't all point to Cthulhu, the cosmic horror loses its totalized and totalizing quality--its underneath-everythingness--which is the source of the horror.

And these systems don't match: Loki cares about humans (tricking them), so does Satan (temptation)--Cthulhu doesn't.

I can't think of any easy answer to write into the entry--the only answer would have to be in the GMing. The GM has to build up the alienness slowly, with attention to where the players are at, moodwise. 

Metaphysically, I have maybe the beginning of an idea--In A Storm of Wings, M John Harrison creates the Sign of the Locust, which seems to be an insect cult.

The Sign of the Locust is unlike any other religion invented in Viriconium. Its outward forms and observances - its liturgies and rituals, its theurgic or metaphysical speculations, its daily processionals - seem less an attempt by men to express an essentially human invention than the effort of some raw and independent Idea - a theophneustia, existing without recourse to brain or blood: a Muse or demiurge - to express itself. 

Which turns out to be what it is: there are alien insects from another world who are slowly supplanting our incompatible human reality with theirs--re-dreaming the whole world so it always was a different way.

True Detective also suggests the killers believe themselves to be in contact with another world--rather conveniently, Carcosa--which we have a supplement all about.

So the aboleth--unlike the demon, devil, quasit--does not belong. Not just to the planet, but to this version of history. It's an intrusion from a completely different interpretion of the planet--from a Carcosa-Earth or a Kadath-Earth.

The Old Ones are non gods, from the wrong Earth, and they are in a war of philosophy. The realm of their adherents--the sea elves and cannibal mermaids--is the water and there is more water than land. The sea is different, and divisions disintegrate there. The total incompatibility of the story of the aboleth-reality with what happened here in ages past during the long wars between all the bearded, spear-carrying gods is real--but they're working on it.
26 Sep 23:16

The Known Unknowns

by Zak S
The 9th entry in a series on D&Dable art history
Initiation mask, Papua New Guinea
" we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns -- the ones we don't know we don't know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones."
-Donald Rumsfeld

"Psychoanalytic philosopher Slavoj Žižek says that beyond these three categories there is a fourth, the unknown known, that which we intentionally refuse to acknowledge that we know."
-Wikipedia, Sept 25

“The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.”

-H.P. Lovecraft

Art historians want you to have context. This requires ignoring the fact that context doesn't cover the only quality that makes art special. According to context Jim Belushi and John Belushi are basically the same guy--from the same culture, background, class, time, place. Context doesn't tell you which one is funny--and funny is the only reason you'd be paying attention to a Belushi in the first place.
Ekoi headdress, Nigeria or Cameroon, early 20th C

When confronted with art from far away, well-intentioned people like to hit you over the head with how little we understand. And understanding is good, it leads to respect and respect keeps people from making other people mad. But respect doesn't get you invited to parties--only love does that. And RPGs are a party, after all.

The good news is, art wants to be loved. Art doesn't care if you know it's a Belushi of the Belushi Clan of Humboldt Park late 20th C, it only wants you to know it is John and not Jim. It is what it is, but more importantly, it is good.
Zapotec dog being totally metal.
The default response to understanding is respectful distance. So the reason you can now get what is basically Italian food and hear what was once a West African beat almost anywhere in the world isn't because anyone understood those things--it's because they loved them. Wait, you have to learn everything about this before you can do anything with it may be an attitude that makes sure professional contextualizers have tenure, but it is rarely the one that the artists themselves would endorse, and it is never the one they take when they go to work. 

The only point of that whole ramble is this: don't let your ignorance intimidate you. Go ahead and love things and feel free to think about what you love in them. Otherwise art history is just you on the floor pouring over maps of greater Chicago watching K-9 and wondering why you hate your life.

This is not a comprehensive or in any way responsible survey of all the art of Oceania, Australia, Southeast Asia, Africa, the Americas and any other place I left out of the other entries. It's just some stuff I love.
Bhurkumkuta, Tibet, 15-16th C
The fact that most Westerners associate "Buddhism" with Zen simplicity and that Tibetan Buddhism's most popular modern ambassador presents as a kind of blandly retweetable Upworthy humanist obscures the fact that Buddhist Tibet was historically a hotbed of Insane Monster Art full of complex philosophical concepts expressed through esoteric figure symbolism.

The sculptures below depicting the yab-yum, which is, as you can see, a male deity (often with with a lot of arms) fucking a female deity without a lot of arms.
He is not holding a duck in each hand I think he's holding
a flame in each hand. Which as a professional I can tell
you is not easy to do during a scene.

(It has a whole spiritual meaning which there are
a lot of people on the internet dying to tell
you about if you're into that kind of thing.)

Tibetan sculpture has a lot of the movement and vitality of Indian art but also some of the fine, attentuated detail of Indonesian and Chinese sculpture. Though, like the guys who do Space Marines, they consistently have a problem doing legs.

I assume you know the temples of like Cambodia Vietnam, etc are frikkin amazing but in case you didn't know that Java does too, here's Java:
Plaosan Temple, Java, 9th C
Prambanan Temple Complex, Java, 9th C

And in Bali they have a kind of sculpture which has a very specific wavelike line not quite like what you'd see in mainland Southeast Asia or in the rest of the islands, plus these distinctly Balinese Crazy Eyes:

I believe those are Garudas

Buddhist and Hindu art are kind of like their own visual genre overlaid over the various cultures where it spread. It's not unusual for other art from the same area to look radically different.

Not far away, in the rest of Indonesia...
Batak divining rooster
Malaggan Mask, New Ireland. The morphology's like
nothing else I've seen outside Yellow Submarine.
It's often overlooked how important individual expression
is in pushing tribal art beyond being just an example of a local style.
Malaggan mask, New Ireland
Masks from the middle Sepik river cultures in New Guinea:

The point of warmasks, like the New Guinean "mudmen" masks below--is to make the warriors look fucked up and thus freak out their enemies. So if they look freaky to you, that is a completely culturally appropriate response. 

Generally speaking, a lot of the apparent grotesquerie in tribal art is conscious grotesquerie--the images represent or incarnate the spirits of the dead and the dead are scary. The fact that the dead are scary is, as James George Frazier pointed out, probably the most widely-shared belief in all of human culture. So if you don't find the images scary and alienating you aren't understanding.

These guys below are called korwars and are apparently a kind of ancestor figure, they
possess the power to prevent bloggers from getting their text to properly left-justify:

I have never seen a korwar like this. I am, in fact,
a little dubious, but that's what the website says it is.
Either way: it is incredible.
In West Central Africa, they have these things called nkondi (or, formerly "nail fetishes"). The idea is either that you nail your prayer into the figure or that you hammer the nail in to wake the figure up to pursue your foes--I am not qualified or educated enough to say which, if either, of those is exactly right. I am, however, eminently qualified to point out that both of those interpretations are D&Dable as fuck.

The dog figure is apparently named Kozo and protects women. Kozo has two heads to see both our world and the spirit world.

And this guy is called Mangaaka:

These here are other kinds of nkisi or objects in which spirits dwell:

This is the god Gou, made from scrap metal some time before
1858 by an artist named Akati Ekplekendo
And, of course, in Africa there's the masks, some of which are also meant to aid in possession by the gods or spirits:
from Mozambique
Bronze, 16C, Yoruba

Fang mask for the ngil ceremony
Tsogo people (from Gabon)
Mask of the Ekpo Society, from Gabon, a sort
of masked spiritual secret police, if I understand correctly.
Requires research, but definitely D&Dable. This is one
example of African art being mysterious and scary
on purpose--even to people within the
So far as I know this is just a cool elephant someone decided to make:
Silver, from the Fon people, 19th C
This is by a 20th century Nigerian artist named Twins Seven Seven, who, again, made deliberately mysterious images based on a personal symbolism--it's called Invisible Bird On Red Planet. He had style.

These images are from a place in Utah called Newspaper Rock--the petroglyphs were made by several different Native American cultures:
One thing about Native American cultures is, since they were in America, and Hollywood is in America, and so were cowboys, we actually have movies about Native Americans. This gives us a little more visual context for what the rest of their lives looked like.

For example, in Dances with Wolves we have an attempt to make the Sioux look one way and the Pawnee look a whole other way. Whether or not it's accurate, it at least makes it easier for an RPG person to imagine adventures there as having variety and detail.

We're not so lucky with, like, sub-saharan Africa or Oceania. It's not compelling if the only image from a culture you can imagine is "guy in a loincloth with a spear"--nor is it accurate. Somebody should get on that.

These are Tlingit war helmets. I sure hope some day somebody makes a movie where people fight wearing these:

And someone really needs to do a better job of showing us what was going on down south than Apocalyto did...

A 15 C. Chimu mummy wore this, in Peru

Mictlantecuhtli, God of the Dead. 600-900 CE, Mexico

Aztec--the repeating geometric patterns help identify it

Aztec snake

Olmec Jaguar
Zapotec funerary urn
Zapotec bowl

These are from a gold-filled Moche tomb in Sipan, northern Peru from around 100 CE. Moche art has less of the repeating  rectilinear motifs that you see in Aztec art:

These are from Teotihuacan, which is translated many ways, but the one I like best is "The place one goes to become a god". It was around from 100 BCE to about 600 years later and nobody knows exactly which culture made it. It's in Mexico...

There was a Zapotec "neighborhood" in Teotihuacan. The
Zapotecs were around a long time and their stuff is super

Next up:
25 Sep 21:37

Eight Persimmons Beneath A Severed Arm

by Zak S
This is 8th in a series on D&Dables in art history 
The Ghost of Wicked Genta Yoshihira Attacking Namba Jiro at Nunobiki Waterfall
by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, whose drunken snapback ink line was marvellously reproduced by
his block-carver in the detail above and imperfectly reproduced by my tattoo
guy on your humble narrator's left shoulder 
The general Western ignorance about far eastern art is chosen: the records of who painted what, when, and why they said they painted it and what people thought about it are extensive and go back a very long time. In eras where Europe was producing pictures attributed to like "Master of Echternach(?)" China had painters with actual names and life dates and scholars producing extensive bodies of theory about them. So we can't fault their book-keeping for our cluelessness.

Part of the problem is your average modern viewer looks at, say, this...
Fan Kuan, Travellers among Mountains and Streams 11th C
...and then this…

Zhang Lu, Hurrying Home Before The Rain 16th C
…and hears that they are separated by five or six hundred years--most of which were spent arguing about painting--and they're baffled.

These paintings seem to eschew so many of the gimmicks Western art (not to mention nearly all the other kinds of images we see every day) rely on--color, action, directness, showy displays of technical knowhow, theatricality, anatomical illusionism, ornamentation--and not even because the artists lacked the time, resources, or technology, but just because they felt like it. They felt like it for 3000 years.
Li Cheng, A Solitary Temple Amid Clearing Peaks c. 960
Zheng Xie, 18th C
Yi Chong, 16th C. Ably representing Korea.

One thing discussions of East Asian art fail to clear up is that the audiences for these works of art were no less enamored of shiny colors or the illusion of action or any of the other vulgar chicaneries the artists of a sophisticated and technologically advancing civilization will inevitably experiment with than anybody else. They just got their fix elsewhere.
Qishan Wanfo Temple
Model city from…some time. I'm guessing Han but
I dunno.

No idea when this is from because even though
Peter Hogarth's book "Dragons" is amazing
its illustration attributions suck.The scales
and claws suggest to me a relatively late date
like 18something
The homes and temples of the Song, Yuan, Ming and Qing rulers were, like those of the Medicis and Popes, filled with awesome fancy junk. China, in fact, mastered awesome fancy junk (full of, yeah, color, action, directness, showy displays of technical knowhow, theatricality, anatomical illusionism, ornamentation) faster than almost anyone else. 
Zun and Pan Assemblage, C 435 BCE
Zhou or Han vessel
Gilt bronze dragon, 750 CE
Dancing weirdoes, Eastern Han, 25-220 BCE 
Palatial homes in the West were ostentatious with architecture, furniture, jewels, costumes and exotic fabrics and the paintings that adorned them evolved to be focal points of that ostentation--to show a sort of concentrated essence of all that color and craftsmanship.

The Eastern palaces were equally magnificent, but the scroll paintings were conceived as a contemplative rest amid the silk and splendor, not a climax of it.
Qing era
East Asian ink painting became aligned with poetry and calligraphy--as in Islamic art--but whereas in the Middle East the calligraphic line turns the poem into a picture, in the Far East the calligraphic line turns the picture into a poem.

You turn the corner, you see the scroll, you lean in, you follow the movements, you are taken far from the calculated and crafted world where the scroll hangs, into not just nature, but nature as seen by another. The brushstroke is an island of human touch hanging on the wall of an otherwise seamless, symmetrical, dyed, gilded, lacquered and manufactured world.
Unimportant Japanese Meiji-era wood sculpture: When your "tossed
off crap for the tourist market" is this good and has a monster this
visually consistent with what was being produced 500 years before
you have one serious motherfucker of a craft culture. 
The Western painter's work is of a piece with the work of the Western sculptor, artisan or jeweler--it is a built thing. You can see the arts and crafts develop in tandem in Europe and to the same ends. The Eastern painter's work stands as an emblem of individual human vision and fragility in contrast to built things.

It keeps what the person has seen and how they saw it from being lost--like tears in rain, as the guy said. Western painting--oh hold on I have to grind up some bones to make yellow--is a much too indirect art for sketching impressions, at least before it found out about Eastern painting.
Hongren, 17th C
Painting existed in a para-literary space rather than the decorative, sculptural or architectural one that Western art chose to compete with. Kurt Vonnegut likened the mind-clearing effect of coming home from work and reading a short story to a "Buddhist cat-nap". The ink painting tradition isn't too far from this idea: The artist takes you--(using a distinctive and personal hand) away and you read the painting as much as look at it--then you return to the world.

Unlike a typical western painting--and much like a story waiting quietly in a book--they don't grab your attention. Grabbing would require intruding on the room, the paintings do not look back at you. They wait for you to look into them, and then hold it as long as you're willing to engage them.
Zou Fulei, A Breath of Spring, 1360

Same thing, close-up

Chen Rong, Nine Dragon Scroll, 13th C,
even the dragons are waiting behind clouds...
more of that
Li Di, Maple Falcon and Pheasant, 12th C. Birds
in trees was a whole genre unto itself.
Monkeys in a loquat tree, 11th c.
Japan, despite relying on the same bag of technical tricks, displayed a consistent inability to quite get with this program. The seeds of the vivacious and frenzied visual culture Japan has today are visible in there form early on.

Chinese paintings allow you to step into them, Western ones ask you to step into them (think of the Mona Lisa looking, smiling, saying "the world's like this, ok?"), Japanese paintings, from surprisingly early on, threaten to step out into your space.

While those Chinese monkeys up there have the good sense to repose for the unknown painter in both the loquat tree and the composition it and they both serve, these Japanese monkeys insist on fucking around. The way they hang almost satirizes the way the scroll hangs from the wall.
Attributed to Mori Sosen but it doesn't look
like his other monkeys so I dunno, 18th-19th C
And this guy? He's looking right at you. Totally not a chinese monkey thing to do:
Hakuin Ekaku, 18c
By the 20th century you could argue the influence
was going the other way.  This is the Chinese artist
Pan Tianshou, from 1961.
Now part of it is the influence of Japanese Zen and the emphasis on spontaneity--here's Sesshu in 14something…Landscape Splashed With Ink:

…and Enku--a 17th C monk--embodied this direct Zen aesthetic in wood temple sculpture...

But there are other forces at work underlying this sensibility:
Chinese liondragons? Just chillin'--carved from the same ineffable celestial cloudstone ether into which they stare…
Japanese temple monster? You can totally tell someone went and looked at a real animal at some point before carving this guy…maybe it was just a shaved shih-tzu, but it was something with muscles and teeth and a face...

19th C netsuke. And there's also bunraku
puppets and noh masks and a billion other
things I don't know enough about to
even scratch the surface of...

…and there's also a distinctly Japanese willingness to let the decorative elements…
19th C
17th C
….into the paintings. Here's Ogata Korin (16th C) prefiguring Gustav Klimt:


I'd submit that the reason almost all eastern and western paintings look so, well….old…to us up until very recently is we don't live in those same rooms. The homes of the modern not-fabulously-wealthy are hopelessly eclectic--we have all this shit because we might need it--the Ikea shelf and the New England blanket and the Japanese printer and the Italian yard sale end-table and the fake-Turkish rug and a dog bred by Chinese emperors to look like a lion. So we want a picture to bring its context with it, and establish a mood under its own power--the artist can't rely on the environment to provide the necessary counterpoint. It can be a conscious effort of will for a modern person to collect the necessary calm to engage a Velazquez or a Li Cheng, even when we recognize there's something worth seeing there.

I'm going to guess Japan's emerging merchant class had the same problem as modernity approached, and so, to serve them, Japanese artists created the earliest artform which is is still capable of giving the contemporary viewer no impression of being seen through a mist of time, the one that is still capable of striking even a child as being as fresh and as immediate as a snapchat: the ukiyo-e print.

The "pictures of the floating world" merged the fluidity and personal touch of ink painting, the design sense of the luxuries and textiles, and the visual ferocity always latent in the mythological sculpture to create something which became--as the form reached its peak in the 19th century--as different from what had come before as Jerry Lee Lewis' piano is from Mozart's.

Roughly in order, the (eminently D&Dable) highlights are…


He made this insane painting right before he died.
I wonder if a young Bill Waterson ever saw it.


(…these things were prints, remember, so the variation in color is because different editions were printed with different inks. Sometimes, also, the variation we see now is due to the ink fading or oxidizing in different print runs.

On top of that, the artist had to rely on rely on the block-carver to transfer their design from drawing to block plus maybe even new owners adding personal ownership seals to the final image--much as a contemporary comic penciller needs to develop a style that works no matter who the colorist, inker and letter are.)

Utagawa Kuniyoshi:


The rest of the Ghost of Genta Yoshihira

23 Sep 14:49

Banned Books By The Numbers via Hitchcockismyhomeboy Tumb

by joberholtzer

Banned Books By The Numbers

via Hitchcockismyhomeboy Tumb

22 Sep 06:00

"We are, as a species, addicted to story. Even when the body goes to sleep, the mind stays up all..."

“We are, as a species, addicted to story. Even when the body goes to sleep, the mind stays up all night, telling itself stories.”

- Jonathan Gottschall, The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human (via psych-facts)
21 Sep 09:00

Digitize Books without Permission

by Dover Public Library
Copyright laws are a tricky thing to nail down, especially when you’re dealing with globalization. Recently the Court of Justice of the European Union made an interesting ruling that has impacted libraries ability to digitize books for their patrons. According to the ruling, the libraries do not to to have permission from the publisher in […]
17 Sep 12:32

The World That Fit In Scheherezade's Head

by Zak S
Part six in a series on D&Dables in art history

"I find herein a wonderful beauty," he told Pandelume. "This is no science, this is art, where equations fall away to elements like resolving chords, and where always prevails a symmetry either explicit or multiplex, but always of a crystalline serenity."
--Tales of the Dying Earth, Jack Vance
Royal Mosque, Isfahan, 17th century.
The little niches are called muqarnas

"Decorative" is a loaded word in art history, and--considering what art actually is--is hard to define. It has something to do with there being more colors and shapes going on than ideas (and stands on the opposite side of the tightrope from another vague and loaded word--"illustration"--which suggests an image where there's nothing but ideas going on).
19th C. Mughal Qur'an--from Iran or India
Great Mosque, Damascus c. 715 
Drawing a clean distinction between what's "decorative" and what isn't is hard because different viewers are going to have different notions about how many ideas they're looking at in any given object. I, for one, am not sure I've seen anything "purely decorative"in my life.
Samanid bowl with calligraphy, 10th century but looking somehow very modern.
Another one. There are lots of types of Islamic calligraphy--this long geometric
kind is called kufic script, it's fairly common.

The problem is pushed to the foreground with the art of the Islamic world because--depending how you look at it--either it's almost all decorative or none of it is. Or maybe everything religious isn't and everything that isn't religious is--even when they're done by the same artist in almost the same style. Or something. It's hard to say and better, probably, to just look.
Incense burner, Egypt, 8th-9th C.
While the Western tradition addressed ideas mostly through illustration and story ("here's St George killing a dragon") in the various Islamic civilizations a different creative direction took hold.

Part of this has to do with religious injunctions against depicting things. The precise rules are different depending where you are and who you ask--sometimes its a rule about depicting just the Prophet, sometimes it's a rule about depicting people, sometimes it's a rule about depicting any living thing, sometimes it's a rule about depicting any real living thing. I'm no expert on the rules, though I do remember in school seeing one Persian manuscript where a later owner had gone through and painted a black line through the neck of every person in the manuscript.
Wonderfully enigmatic image of the Prophet looking at
a David Lynch box. 1222. The veiled face is one
convention adopted to avoid depicting him.

Point is: the most common way to express stories and ideas was through calligraphy. Taking the overt content--words--and imparting beauty and perhaps new shades of meaning to them by how they were written.
Blue Qur'an--North Africa, 9th-10th C.
Mamluk-era Qur'an

Both the line and the ethic of calligraphy (take a known and legible thing, beautify it with strict attention to geometry and proportion) influenced every single other art form in the culture. The mosques often have calligraphy worked into the reliefs, the paintings have a pictograph-like line, the metalwork is done in dense script-like meshes of vegetal designs.
Ince Manare madrasa, Konya, Turkey, 1258. That's a knotted
prayer running up the front of the building.

Here's what I particularly like about this from a D&D perspective. Consider Jack Vance's Dying Earth as quoted by Jeff:

Turjan found a musty portfolio, turned the heavy pages to the spell the Sage had shown him, the Call to the Violet Cloud. He stared down at the characters and they burned with an urgent power, pressing off the page as if frantic to leave the dark solitude of the book.

Turjan closed the book, forcing the spell back into oblivion. [...] Then he sat down and from a journal chose the spells he would take with him. What dangers he might meet he could not know, so he selected three spells of general application: the Excellent Prismatic Spray, Phandaal's Mantle of Stealth, and the Spell of the Slow Hour.

And consider Jeff's comment here: Spells are almost alive with power. Memorizing a spell is kinda like putting a demon in your head. Something similar could be said of a prayer--a prayer is putting a spark of the divine in your head--or into whatever you're painting it on or carving it into.
Amulet case--10th-11th C.
The black stuff is a compound called niello, often
used for medieval inlay.
And D&D wizards are always writing spells down, and in old editions you could even write it wrong and memorize it wrong. I like the idea that writing things down is encoding them and  binding them into the thing. While calligraphy was esteemed almost- or just as- highly in Japan and China, it didn't have the omnivorous quality of Islamic calligraphy, taking over walls, plates, doorways.

There is something almost gnostic in this: the world and everything in it is just the expression of something else happening in another, higher reality. All our world's objects and pleasures are just a text about that higher world.
Great Mosque, Cordoba, Spain

The architecture also has to be counted as a tremendous influence on the art--moreso than in the West, because of the art's inherently abstract and geometric quality, it's easy to find the forms of buildings reproduced on a smaller scale in the luxury objects and paintings. One theory holds that the "carpeted" look of these traditional walls descends from actual carpets--which the Mongols and other nomadic peoples' used as tent walls and which were and are still hung on walls for insulation and to, of course, tie the room together.
Persian Qur'an, using Nasta'liq script-- 16th-17th century
Bibi-Khanym Mosque, Samarkand, Uzbekistan (1404, but
completely reconstructed in the 70s I think)
Mamluk Qur'an

Lutfallah Mosque, Isfahan, Iran, finished in 1618
Various medieval braziers...

I think the colorful and monumental qualities of Islamic architecture are partially due to having (in a decent proportion of the very many countries which were ruled by an Islamic civilization at one time or another) a lot less foliage to compete with than the rest of us. Bukhara, for instance, gives the impression that if you wanted any kind of environment you had to build it yourself:
Great Mosque, Yazd, Iran 1330
So calligraphy and carpets influence the buildings, and the buildings influence everything else. These influences have something in common: they're all things only people make. Nature plays a role in every civilization's art, of course, but it wouldn't be crazy to say it plays a smaller roll in the art of the Islamic world than in that of any other great world civilization. It appears as pattern and abstraction, but relatively rarely as a force in itself.
Weird cat-shaped incense burners were fairly
common in 12th Century Iran 
I have no idea how accurate this is, but here's someone's
explanation for the variety of weird felines: "While zoomorphic and anthropomorphic representations were forbidden under Islamic religious law, the so-called “principle of improbability” was employed to create animals that were so far removed from reality that they could not be argued to be in any way representational of nature; thus were the strictures avoided. " 
Super cute.
The lack of observed natural motifs adds an air of urbanity and artifice to Islamic art taken out of context that accords well with the kind of goatless cosmopolitanism in 1001 Nights-style worlds like Al-Qadim and the Thief of Baghdad.

This painting, done in 1488 by the renowned Bihzad, features Zuleykha chasing Yusef through seven doors and is one of the most magical things I have ever seen:
Note the totality of the artifice: no sky, no landscape, everything is civilized, abstracted, sturctured, lonely, symbolic--plants and stars are only present as the idea of plants and stars worked into the patterns. This is a true mythic otherworld maze, made of only psychological things. This is Julio Cortazar territory--hundreds of years before modernism.

Here is Bihzad actually taking on nature, with the typically Persian use of rich colors derived from jewelry, lustred tilework and textile design:

Mir Sayyid Ali came along a little while after Bihzad...
Palace scene,1539-43
...I love how the food and wine float on that palace carpet like toy boats.

It's interesting to compare this battle scene to how a Japanese artist might have painted it. In both cases, the trees could be stylized and isolated, but the Persian painter has decisively and consciously transformed the tree into a beautiful symbol of a tree, whereas a Japanese painter would have given us some approximation of some seen tree.
From the Bayasanghori Shahnameh
The horses, though, have detail and distinction, no two quite alike--as useful war animals they belong to civilization, to the writer-like record of who and what was there. Compare this to one of Paolo Uccello's battles.

Likewise, you can directly compare this anonymous Ottoman portrait to the Bellini painting that inspired it:
…while Bellini was worrying about how the light fell on the folds and the face and making it look like his painter was actually sitting on the ground, the Ottoman artist worked on recording colors and patterns--making the subject of the painting into a pattern.

And, taking a bite out of the other end of cultural appropriation sandwich, here's a Persian hero killing a  totally Chinese dragon...
Bahram Gur Kills the Dragon. 1371. 
18 Sep 11:00

#616 Superhighway Robbery

by treelobsters
17 Sep 17:18

grofjardanhazy: Evolution of the Desk (1980-2014) gif:...

by joberholtzer


Evolution of the Desk (1980-2014)

gif: grofjardanhazy, original video via Best Reviews

09 Sep 09:26

Medieval Art: 1000 Years Of Bad Ideas

by Zak S
(Third in a series)
The highlights of art history, as usually taught, go:

1. Egypt
2. Greece and Rome
3. the Renaissance
4. the mainline of Western painting (Caravaggio, Rembrandt, etc)
5. Modernism

This offers a pretty easy-to-follow story: from humble beginnings, realism steadily increases until (around 5) photography is invented, history ends, art explodes with Picasso-shaped fireworks, and here we are now and we can just watch movies instead.

It's also taught this way for another reason: the cultures involved represent a simple history of improving ideas. Egypt is a tyranny, but it is undoubtedly a civilization--it has laws and stuff, it's well-documented and explicable. Then we have Greece and Rome where we have democracy (occasionally) and individuality and philosophy and all that. Then the Renaissance with humanism, and then the Enlightenment, which leads (via a familiar paper-trail) to the wonderful now. It's not that all of history was great, but it was at least necessary. This is a very complacent philosophy: Everything's fine now, right? It's that way because of millennia of refinement.
Meaux Cathedral gargoyle
Seen this way it's pretty clear why you'd leave the Middle Ages out: in this story they can only be seen as a terrible thousand-year-long detour on the way from stateless barbarism to equality, science, and safety.
Gargoyles are so distinctive a form that even though
they're just carved images of demons, in D&D & other games they're actually
their own class of monster
And I would submit that this is why we like them so much. Nothing is so much fun to play in as a ruin. And the more sophisticated the culture that produced the building in the first place, the more fun it is to fuck around in the fucked-up shell of it. This is why we find post-apocalypses fascinating to play in, too. Games offer the imagination all of the exoticism and none of the consequences. This is why the Renaissance Fair always ends up skewing Medieval.
Case in point: This isn't Medieval at all. The flowing lines and naturalistic ear give this away
as being, like many famous gargoyles,  a product of
the 19th century Gothic Revival. The Gothic keeps getting revived for
a reason.

Unlike the oldest eras, The Middle Ages have a great many markers of civilization in abundance: writing, fortresses, machines, churches, philosophies, domesticated animals, politics, steel, towns, cities. But unlike the Renaissance, they're using them all wrong. And that's amazing.
This is the Moneymusk Reliquary. That tracery lets you know its
from Scotland or Ireland. Reliquaries are special expensive boxes
to keep the body parts of saints in. This is a dumb idea.
Since this isn't my first D&D blogging rodeo I will now pause to acknowledge the amateur and professional historians in the first row with their hands in the air straining to point out two things:

1. There was actually a great deal of intellectual and technological progress made in the Middle Ages,
2. Several of the tropes we associate with D&D and the traditional "fantasy" era are actually more Renaissance or Age of Exploration than strictly Medieval.
Another dumb reliquary.

Well that doesn't matter: we're talking about how people view history, not how it is. And in our minds we associate the Middle Ages with warfare and superstition. And warfare and superstition is fighters and magic-users. And those things are fun.

Lindisfarne Gospels.
Some Irish monk spent all this time painting ("illuminating")
this one page of a copy of the bible. Like as if they had
nothing better to do.

If we view the history of art as a history of philosophy (that is: a search for truth) then the Middle Ages are meaningless. If we view the history of art as a history of the imagination (that is: a history of human emotions and inventions) then the Middle Ages are absolutely essential to who we are today. Few people in any walk of life even now go longer than a week without using words like "king" or "knight" or "witch" or "wizard" or "demon" and the very linguistically convenient concepts these words encapsulate.
Painting in the Middle Ages raised the pattern established in ancient art of
"animals drawn well and lots of ways, people drawn poorly and always the same"
to the level of a fetish.
Even today, the stupidest members of the RPG community think of art as serving philosophy--likely due to not knowing what imagination is.
The entrance to Hell (dumb idea) was frequently depicted as
being a big mouth called…a 'hellmouth'.
And, yes, it says 'penis'.
Nothing guarantees tourism like a castle or a cathedral--and yet few buildings incarnate such stupid ideas. You don't need a castle unless you've created a social order based around petty tyrants living in constant fear of each other--and you don't need a cathedral unless you decided to waste all your stone and cash and several generations of your able-bodied men building a stylish antenna to talk to a ghost. These are awful, beautiful things. These are Fleurs Du Mal.
Classic Greek column capitals are divided into three orders:
Doric, Ionic and Corinthian. All of which are a subset of
the Not As Cool As These order.

No matter what was actually going on in the hearts and days of the millions of Europeans that lived and died after the influence of Rome abated and before the Renaissance reached them, what we see in the art--in the best of it anyway--is bad ideas. Bad ideas made beautiful and touching and compelling by effort, by intensity of belief, by invention.
The Roettgen Pieta
…and by the (stupid) idea that things needed to be artified--to glorify a god or a duke. Any object was a possible site of aestheticization. The craft ethic has probably never reached a greater height in Western civilization than in the Middle Ages--not only because it was the last time there wasn't much division between high art and useful craft, but also because being crafty was one of the few ways to avoid dying face down in a pig ditch before you lost all your baby teeth.
Ivory chess pieces from different sets.
And--by no coincidence at all--the category of "the fantastic" is about bad ideas. Otherwise the ideas wouldn't be called "fantastic" they'd be called "true". Fantasy is literally all about received ideas that we, by definition, no longer believe and threw out. There is no magic, there is nothing special about kings or clerics, the world isn't made of four elements, people aren't made of four humours, there's no such thing as a whole race being evil, Jews don't have horns. Signing up for the "the fantastic" is putting a sign on the door saying "Everything you're about to hear is bullshit". So policing the implications of fantasy is stupid: every idea in fantasy is awful.  Anyone mistaking any of it for philosophy is in desperate need of a parent or a psychiatrist.
I've told this story on the blog before:
The first time I saw this in the Met it was labeled "St George
Chesspiece". I asked, in an essay, "if St George is
your knight, what the hell does the rest
of the chess set look like? Is it all saints? Is your
king Jesus? It's either not St George or not a
chess piece." My teacher worked in the Met.
The next time I saw it, it was re-labeled.
Here's an interesting thing about Medieval art and our modern concept of The Fantastic:

We know for a fact that, for example, Dante Alighieri was genuinely a religious man. He would likely feel really bad--blasphemous, in fact--if he got the details of what Hell was like wrong. And Jesus fuck he had a lotta details.
Again: Monsters done well. People done poorly.
So what did he go on? Research? So far as we know: not really. He was something of a numerologist, but basically there are details of stuff in there that are obviously original to Dante. So was he like "Fuck it, I'll make something up, God won't notice. It's not like he sees all and knows all, right?"?
This is Scandinavian knotwork on this staff-end,
it's chunkier than Celtic tracery
Viking chest

No: here's what he and thousands of Medieval Christian artists probably thought "If I'm having this idea, it's probably because God gave it to me". Which is marvellous, as terrible ideas go: If you get an art idea, it's because you should get it.
Hey guys, lets make folding Marys!
God tell you to do that?
Alright. On it.
This is the world your players' D&D characters live in--even moreso than genuine Medieval people because your party has daily totally incontrovertible evidence of divine power in the form of the party cleric.

Everything, even a new thing, belongs. Something higher has ordained it. Mallory, Wagner and Tolkien mined the echoes of this idea very hard: everything, even the pettiest handicraft, even the pies and mutton, is mythic. Everything is, was and always will be basically this way. The only "future" (conceived as a time when things in general look different than they do now) is apocalyptic.
This is a strange psychoaesthetic trick: portraying the Middle Ages--which is actually a very distinct moment in the development of politics and technology on a very specific continent--as a sort of platonic eternal. It seems very natural to us, but it takes a certain kind of sleight of hand to look at something as complex and specific and historical as, say, a crossbow, and read it as a weapon in a mythic conflict. You couldn't imagine a fairy tale with an arquebus in it.
We don't know whether people back
then thought this guy looked funny.
But they might've: Chess is less
important than God, so the
chess piece carvers had a
freer hand. 
If the Lord meant for me to not Hobo and thence to Murder why would he put the idea in my head?

More Irish graphomania--
The Book of Kells
Hey let's keep water in a lion!
These shaped jugs are called "aquamaniles"
Often these unimportant domestic objects are
the most interesting. Art historians hate that.
The Tara Brooch. More insane Irish intricacy. This was before
whiskey had come to the Isles.
Bishop's grave

09 Sep 19:45

Ypres, Belgium new piece for this Colossal article.

Ypres, Belgium

new piece for this Colossal article.

05 Sep 09:02

Art History For D&D People, Course Overview

by Zak S
(First in a series)
I don't really do that many sweeping survey posts about art even though art's my job because whenever I say something like "Oh yeah, Franz Hals fuck him" someone in the comments always leaves some long thoughtful comment about their relationship to Franz Hals and it makes me forget that like that leaves 2,999 other regular blog readers having no idea what we're talking about.

But then Jez Gordon was like "Who's Egon Schiele?" and was like ok that's weird because clearly the artistic lineage there is:

Jez Gordon ---(influenced by)----> Late Frank Miller ----(influenced by) ----> Mid-era Bill Sienkiewicz ---(influenced by)----> Egon Schiele

...and so if one of the best emerging illustrators in the DIY D&D scene doesn't know his roots, then what about everybody else?

Plus it'll be fun. I like looking at pictures and I like thinking about pictures.

So I'm guessing/hoping this'll be a series of posts. I'm gonna just lay out here how I am thinking I'll organize the entries. I may not do them in order.

(EDIT: I did most of the ones I planned on doing, links below)
Ancient Art:Blasphemous Things You Find In A Cave
3000 years of China Being Way Ahead of Everyone
Finnish Sculpture Paints That Culture As A Frozen Sinkhole Of Goggle-Eyed Madmen
Egypt: Not Always Boring
Meso-America: Let's Stack Things!
Greece And Rome: zzzzzzzzz

Medieval European Art:Beyond Things With Weird Necks

Indian & (separate entry) Middle-Eastern Art of the Middle Ages:
Imposing a Sense of Bejewelled And Labyrinthine
Order On Every Fucking Thing

The Northern Renaissance & The International Style:Way Better Than That Other Renaissance They TaughtYou About In School
Painting & Printmaking in China and Japan:Mountains, Mist, Nightmarish Tentacle-PornPrecursor Things
Post-Renaissance But Pre-Modern Europe:Guys Holding Swords They Probably Won't Use
Wood, Water, and Wire:The Art That Freaked Colonialists Out
Decadent Art of the Call of Cthulhu Era:
Please Nobody Tell Wundergeek Europe Exists
Symbolism, Surrealism and Other
Products of Drug Abuse

Every Good Early Illustrator I Can Think Of:
A.K.A. The Post That Other DIY D&D People
Have Probably Already Done Better Than
Me But I Should Probably Do Anyway
EDIT: I put these three all together here in the Modernism post.

Fine Art After WW2:
Actually, You Do Like Modern Art, It's Just
They Don't Want You To Know That

07 Sep 21:15

Ancient Art Is Basically Monsters

by Zak S
(Second in a series)
Many basic prejudices in the way art history is taught date back to when Giorgio Vasari invented the discipline, and one of the most consistent and least discussed is a prejudice against monsters.

The first sculpture you are typically shown in an art history class is the Venus of Willendorf--which is a lady--and the first paintings are the Lascaux cave paintings--which are some deer and some dudes.

These things are explicable. You can look at these images for a very dull three seconds and your teacher can very quickly move on to talking about what art history teachers love to talk about: any subject other than art. The Venus lets you talk about standards of beauty, fertility cults, matriarchal society, stone technology, the Lascaux paintings let you talk about hunting, shamanism, cave-dwelling, realism. Anything but what the goddamn things look like, which isn't much.

Art historians have always loved to talk about humanity--personalities and sociologies--which is a shame because throughout history many of the best artists were interested in something much less- and almost literally un- discussable: the unknown. Our ancestors who made art dedicated a vast quantity of that effort to monsters--hideous confabulated creatures that never existed anywhere but in the object that incarnates them.

It'd be overselling it to say the history of art is a history of monsters, but it is entirely accurate to say a history of monsters is a history of art.

Monsters have a specific interest to art theory outside RPG aesthetics: they are things that are made of (and only of) the medium that describes them. Like: a Lascaux horse is representation of a thing out there--a real horse. Whereas this:
(This is from Greenland.)

…is only this. It has no "real appearance" outside the ivory describing it. The artist themself might even think it is only a crude representation of a real thing that's out there, but there is no thing out there to check it against. In this way, monster art is actually closer to abstract art than it is to art representing animals and people. It goes where the mind does--like monsters do.

Monster art is thus uniquely psychological--in a way the more dutiful kinds of art have a tough time being.

Though even when not making monsters, our earliest artists had a beautiful knack of making everything look fucked up:
The traditional interpretation of this kind of art tends to basically be: inside every ancient artist is a little Italian Renaissance artist struggling to get out, very slowly. Do we have perspective yet? Do we have proper proportions yet? Are we doing individual people yet?

A more expressionist interpretation would be: look at that Sami sculpture on the far right. It's saying something already now. Something unique to it, like FUUUUCK I LIVE ON AN ICE PLANET AND I AM STARING AT THE SKY SCRAPING A ROCK WITH ANOTHER ROCK BECAUSE WHAT THE FUCK ELSE AM I GOING TO DO?

You never know what tribal and traditional art is supposed to be saying--and so it isn't discussed much--but what we here now feel it saying is just as important, or more. After all: that's what's actually happening now to you.

This is art by people who were at level of constant contact with their world (animals, weather, mud) that most of us can barely imagine and yet knew very little about the world (why animals? why weather? why mud?). A great deal of the art was guesses about the forces that dominated the world--attempts to assess it. They knew this: it was other and scary.

Our monsters now (virus zombie, berserk robot) tend to be errors in the natural order. Their monsters were the natural order.

Much of art history before modernism is a record of increasing realism and decreasing emotion. At least when we look at it with our 21st century eyes. The mainline of self-conscious art in China, Japan, India and Europe wouldn't have anyone as crazy as that guy on the far right for thousands of years.

Here are some more Cthulhoids from the Sami (the people from the extreme north of Scandinavia, sometimes called the Lapps):
There is a very special effect in this kind of art: I need to tell you a very specific thing and you will never know what it is.  These are the kinds of images from which pictograms and then written language sprang. It is like someone looking right into your eyes and repeating a sentence over and over in a language you don't know, with emphasis:
E'th'et Kaana F'Vor Est Ina.
E'th'et Kaana F'Vor Est Ina!
E'th'et Kaana F'Vor Est In-a!!!
…the actual ability to communicate is stunted but the intensity and particularity is what gives it power. Like: what is that long-legged doghead monster on the bottom right? Why does it have two rectangles sticking out of its back? What do all these other things going on have to do with it?

We don't know--and in that not knowing there is a wonderful freedom to just enjoy it. It is permanently exotic to us.

The earliest art of almost every part of the world is:

…and there are still cultures and artists that were producing work very much in this vein up until the 20th century--like the Greenland Inuit:

Here's a thing about ancient art:
It's fucking nuts. Artist historians and archaeologists go through and try to pick out repeated features and iconographies but what's more striking is how much stuff is just out of nowhere. Weird shapes or ways of assembling things that appear once or twice and disappear--seemingly unconnected to anything else before or since, like discarded mutations. All the bullshit about ancient aliens comes from how fucked this art is.

Let's take a look...

You can watch regional styles develop over the centuries--the looping animal motifs in Scythian art is remarkably consistent regardless of the medium:
One of the earliest tattoos--there are stags in there

The spur of the tattoo on the left appears to be a  hoof
Scythian stonework 
…however this is unusual: in most cases you can see the shapes in the art being formed by the materials the art is executed in. Does that mean the shapes in the stonework (and metalwork later) were derived from tattoo shapes? Hard to tell--the record of tattoos is frustratingly fragmentary: we occasionally get a glimpse of something unbelievably intricate and then nothing for thousands of years. There's a whole history of drawing there that's completely lost.

Here are some Serbian river gods from Lepenski Vir, carved from cobbles. The one on the far right looks particularly freaked out at being graven in stone...

Nobody in Italian Renaissance, Mannerist, Neoclassical, Pre-Raphaelite, Baroque, Roccocco or Impressionist art ever looks that freaked out. 

China, like I mentioned a few days ago, was always way ahead of everyone as this jade pig-dragon proves:

 …although this piece of Iranian proto-elamite silverwork, dating from 3000 BC is by far the most sophisticated thing going for a few hundred years:

While nobody knows what it is or means or who the bull is supposed to be, it points up a recurring theme in ancient art: almost everybody was better at making animals than people.

We all know what people in Egyptian art look like--they look the same for like 3000 years. The Egyptians produced what appears to be the most consistently conservative visual culture in human history. The animals, on the other hand, are generally more sensitive, dynamic, realistic and evocative:

Even sitting still, the back legs suggest the animal could spring forward at any second.

While nobody can know why this is, I have a pet theory. There are rules for depicting people--even today the way people are depicted is a subject of great debate among the ruling and scholarly classes. There are right ways and wrong ways to depict people--the depictions have conventions and rights and wrongs and get tied up with religious, hierarchical, and social codes. In Egypt the codes for depicting people were so strict that when, during the reign of Akhenaten, the codes were briefly relaxed, you can actually see a torrent of totally new styles emerge at shocking speed (and then disappear when the Akhenaten's reign ends). It is true that in some Islamic societies, depicting people was outright forbidden. The human figure is a locus of anxiety--so each culture tends, after a few thousand years, to find a way to depict people and then sticks to it.

Which is not to say these codified ways are universally boring--the Mehrgarh people of the Indus Valley (in modern day Pakistan) decided people looked like oozing freaks:

Anyone whose ever rolled and coiled Play-Doh can see where the characteristic shapes of Mehrgarh terracotta came from.

Japan's earliest consistent and identifiable culture--the Jomon--seem to have developed these distinctive and fantastically stylized figures by deriving human shapes from jug or water-vessel shapes:

China, meanwhile, was deep into bronze--and they already had dynasties and shit with Kings with actual names and stuff, like the Shang and Zhou. Bronze is a big deal, and very flexible. One way to tell early Chinese artifacts apart from Mesoamerican ones are the thin, tapering lines--like on the bottom of the handle of this zoomorphic jug:

 …or on this elephant's trunk:
 …bronze will hold its shape even with these tenuous lines, unlike stone or wood which would snap right off if it was that thin.

Linear complexity is a knock-on effect of the hardness of the material you're using.  If elves were using mithril, that explains those scrolling 19th-century shapes they've got worked into their arms and armor.
…which is not to say mesoamerica wasn't making anything good. In fact, for variety of materials and morphologies (including in the people) it's hard to beat mesoamerican stuff:

This is Coatlique--she has 2 snake heads

Jade masks from Mexico

That nose and those fingers look like nothing else you'll see--
if you find a museum with Colombian or Peruvian art in it
I guarantee you'll see something totally out of left field every
few minutes.

Bat monster
Meanwhile, the Celts were largely ignoring people and developing a mania for linework that wouldn't stop til after Aubrey Beardsley…

And, yeah, there was ancient Greece and Rome. Greek art is generally broken into 4 periods:
Geometric (stiff people with triangle bodies), Archaic (endlessly repeated sculptures of little boys with wavy hair and dumb eyes), Classical (Venus De Milo and whatnot) and Hellenistic. The Hellenistic is the only good one--this was the period where the skills developed during the Classical era were used to present subjects with far more intensity. Here's an old woman:
Even then, the majority of it is pretty stiff--especially compared to what folks like Michaelangelo,  Bernini and Houdon would do with the whole Realism-In-Marble thing hundreds of years later.

The Paracas Culture on the other hand, was having crazy fun:

click to enlarge the madness
You'll notice it looks like pixel art--that's because it essentially is--in needlework, each area is a dot of color. These figures were assembled color by color, square by square.
The Zapotec made some fucking intense monsters--the stone-born simplicity of the constituent shapes makes them far scarier than their curlicued Chinese equivalents.

There's something very modern about the way pre-Columbian cultures just let the materials be the materials--letting the form emerge out of the shapes, colors and textures the images are made from:

This blue nosed guy is apparently a "functionary". It's all very Tekumel: a clearly complicated society, but one with rules and codes we can't begin to guess.
Click on that and enlarge it--that rabbit at the bottom could've been drawn yesterday. And the complexity of the visual space with those stacked floors and ceilings is pretty dungeony.

This is also the period where the largest artworks in the world were made: the mysterious Nazca drawings of animals--only legible from the air. However, there were other giant earth drawings--my favorite is the Atacama Giant from Argentina:

You'll notice African stuff is conspicuous by its absence from this entry (also the art of Oceania, Australia, America, and Southeast Asia)--this is because the majority of the most interesting work was made in wood--which doesn't last long. Because of that, most of the best examples of African art are actually from the past two centuries--the compelling Nok head above being a relatively rare exception. We'll take a look at it later.

20 Aug 03:30

Since succubi can fly, how do they deal with drag? How many Gs can they handle during aerobatics? And since they don't have ailerons and flaperons and vertical fins - how do they do the manoeuvring at high altitude when caught by strong airflows?

Why do I have this feeling this is a monty python and the holy grail sort of question?

What is the air-speed velocity of unladen Succubi?

What do you mean? Asian or European Succubi?

Huh? I… I don’t know that. AUUUUUUUGGGGGGGGGGGHHH!!

How do you know so much about Succubi?

Well, you have to know these things when you’re the Queen, you know.

But I digress… and I’m being silly, but that’s… another story…

Considering that the wings of Succubi are similar to that of angels (and really they are, whether feathered bird like or bat like or really any sort of wings) they would have to work in the same way wouldn’t they?

Turns and so on are done by bending the shape of the wing, which would have to be an inherent skill they have. As for drag, g-forces, and so on, it would be the application of some of the magic within themselves to create a bubble around their bodies that protects them from the harm such things might cause… That bubble would adhere and shape to their bodies, likely, again, an inherent skill or ability…

And now I have this sudden idea for a story to tell on Monday… Mebby…

As for the question, thank you Anon! I thought that was an really interesting question!



Queen of the Succubi

07 Feb 19:34

Come Holy Ghost A setting of the Latin Mass for jazz/rock combo...

by joberholtzer

Come Holy Ghost

A setting of the Latin Mass for jazz/rock combo and full choir.

Tumblr has spoken!

"a haunting combination of sacred chamber music and jazz (I know, right?)"joshsundquist
"seriously my album of the year, guys."countingnothings
"yooooo this album is pretty cool"sexyboitommo
"I need to pigeonhole it, but it can’t be done!" – tumble-pie
"kinda exciting"thecalmthestorm
"You just don’t hear music like this anymore"lyebymistake
"Jason Oberholtzer is so fucking talented I can’t stand it."rachelfershleiser

Two bits of great news, guys!

1) My album is streaming for free on bandcamp!

2) The double vinyl, 180 gram 45rpm LP copies of the album finally arrived, and they sound absolutely beautiful. For what it’s worth (hopefully something), it’s my favorite format to listen to the album, so I’m thrilled to be able to share. If you like what you hear on the stream, please consider picking up the vinyl, so you can hear my saucy piano playing the way it was intended to be heard. 

09 Dec 06:16

A Modest Request For Help

by jon


This is a comic I did not want to have to draw, and a post I did not want to have to write. But here we are. You guys have been a great audience for almost seventeen years now, and without your support I never would have had this career. But I’ve reached a point where I can’t rely on the income I make from the strip to cover all of my expenses.

These are not crazy expenses. I’m not an extravagant person. I don’t go out, I don’t buy lots of jewelry or yachts. My major concerns are paying for my kids’ day care, my mortgage and my car payments.

Way back in Olden Times, many artists could rely on support from a patron; someone with mad ducats who would pay the bills so the artist could concentrate on making art. In that spirit, the good people at Patreon have introduced a tool that allows artists to crowdsource the patronage model. Rather than depending on a single individual to do the heavy lifting, it allows lots of people to each contribute a small amount.

There are a lot of SFAM readers. Between the people who read the strip on the website and through various social media outlets, there are probably somewhere in the neighborhood of 35,000 daily readers. If every one of those readers contributed just a dollar a month, my financial troubles would be a thing of the past.

I’m not asking for that, though. I know even a dollar a month is a difficult thing to ask for from many of you, and that’s okay. But if you enjoy SFAM and you’d like to see it continue, please consider becoming one of those dollar-a-month patrons. If only 2,000 of you pitch in a buck each month, that (in addition to my merchandise sales and ad revenue) will be enough to create that cushion of stability I need to keep things going. If 4,000 of you contribute, I’ll even be able to increase my comics output.

Patreon’s tools allow you to set a patronage level for each piece of published content. They also allow you to set a maximum monthly donation so you’re not overcharged if I make a whole lot of comics one month. I suggest you set the maximum donation to the same amount as your monthly patronage level. That way, you won’t be charged per comic — just one time a month at a small, predictable level.

Patreon also allows me to give small rewards to patrons at different contribution levels. Current rewards include custom haikus, sketches, original art, access to occasional comic-drawing streams and Google hangouts and more. As a patron, you’ll also have access to any bonus content I create, like extra comics, wallpapers, illustrations and such.  I’ll add more rewards and reward levels as I think ‘em up.

But the real reward here is more comics for you, every month. I want to keep making them for you. I want to keep drawing. In a very real way, you guys are my collective employer. All I’m asking for is continued employment and a living wage. If you can help out with that, you will have my eternal gratitude.

No matter how this plays out, I want to thank all of you for your incredible support over the last seventeen years and for letting me do this thing that I love for so long. It has been a true honor.

If you have any thoughts or concerns, please email me or tweet at me and I’ll do my best to address them.

14 Jun 14:45

camsinternetbrain: Something to help people just getting into...

by joberholtzer


Something to help people just getting into Game of Thrones.