Kids Letters

Ink letters for my kid’s bedroom.  Click image for full size


The Emperor’s New Clothes or why Modern Art is shit – part deux

I was browsing Oxford’s Museum of Modern Art website for some of their art, as well as an art auction house called Bonhams.

Here I present to you some fine modern ‘art’, sold for hundreds of pounds. Try not to shit yourselves.


Artist: Mohammed Ashfaq
Title: Shift

Inspired by aspects of both Islamic and modernist art, Mohammed Qasim Ashfaq’s monochromatic drawings and sculptures employ abstract geometric shapes and patterns which invite deep contemplation. Ashfaq created this edition, SHIFT (2016), his very first etching, to coincide with Modern Art Oxford’s 50th anniversary programme KALEIDOSCOPE.

To make the print, the artist applied his intricate drawing technique to a copper plate, resulting in a highly textured black circle which reflects light in infinite ways

Price: 900 pounds (~$1,100)

Someone paid $1,100 for a gray circle on a black background that has as much connection or relevance to Islamic art as bacon-flavored whiskey. They also claim its an ‘abstract geometric shape that invites deep contemplation’. Whoever bought this ‘art’ should contemplate deeply why they paid all that money for a piece that could’ve been produced by a cheap printer running low on black ink.

Artist: Gunther Uecker
Title: Oval

Oval 1958, is one of the very first works by the towering artist Günther Uecker to feature his signature standing nails. Furthermore lots 5 and 6 by Günther Uecker offer an unrivalled insight into two crucial periods of his artistic development. As rare and important early artworks by this highly influential artist, they also transport us back to a key moment in the development of the European avant-garde of the second half of the Twentieth Century. Here we see the early manifestations of Uecker’s signature style, the obsession with materiality and process which have defined his practice ever since. These were, and continue to be, works of the future, produced at a time of intense ambition and optimism, when artists truly believed that they could change the world: as Uecker himself wrote in 1961, “the intentions of today are the realities of tomorrow”

Price: 557,000 pounds ($677,082)

Don’t let the sticker price shock you. The buyer is getting Gunther’s trademark signature ‘standing’ nails, not the usual lying-down nails we are all used to. You can tell by the angle of the nails that Gunther was once an unskilled carpenter, out of work and out of money, until he accidentally hit a nail into an old wooden toilet seat cover. Once he saw the rusty angled nail standing there awkwardly, he had an epiphany;

“The dilapidated toilet seat covers of today, are the cha-ching!! sounds of tomorrow”.

Artist: Karla Black
1st image: Fed 
2nd image: Nothing is a Must

Black explains her haptic approach to making in relation to psychology, and cites Melanie Klein’s play technique – a method used to analyse very young children through their negotiation of the physical world rather than through language – as a contextual source. For Black, this sublingual articulation mirrors the sculptural process and offers the possibility for the work to achieve its own communication and agency. Nothing Is A Must is made from chalked sugar paper. It’s uplifted exaggerated form is like an open bag, made simultaneously monumental and flaccid.

Price: Unlisted (too embarrassed to charge money for this)

Quick: What do you call a bag full of window-padding hung by scotch tape, and a tarp hung by what looks like a schizophrenic homeless person trying to find shelter in an art gallery full of pretentious white people?

Sublingual Articulation, of course! That was my first thought as well. The fine print claims that the ‘uplifted exaggerated form, is monumental and flaccid’, sort of like a penis that’s aroused upon expectations of seeing quality art, and subsequently deflated upon finding a ball of cotton stuffed into a plastic bag.

Artist: Alighiero Boetti
Title: Mimetico

Created by extending ready-made camouflage fabric over a stretcher or board, as with the present example, Mimetico from 1968 is highly conceptual, and can be analysed in numerous ways. In utilising a ready-made fabric, Boetti questioned the role of the artist in the creative process; he chose a fabric conceived to imitate the natural world, and the creation of a work of art from a pattern designed to disappear into the background is delightfully paradoxical. The philosophy of Arte Povera was outlined by Germano Celant, who organised a ground-breaking 1967 group exhibition in Genoa: “Language is acknowledged and reduced to a purely visual element, divested of historical and narrative superstructures. The empirical quality of artistic enquiry, rather than its speculative aspect, is exalted.

Price: $91,169

The fine print says that Al Boetti’s masterpiece can be interpreted in numerous ways. I concur. Heres my take.

The camo-pattern represents the ‘post-war’ art movement’s war on taste, beauty and elegance, using artillery shells full of bullshit to intellectually overwhelm man’s natural recognition of aesthetic beauty. Also, the brown spots shown over green landscape represent horrific brain tumors that one must obviously be afflicted with, in order to shell out almost 100,000$ for a scrap of army surplus pants stretched over a canvas that one can buy at Michael’s for 10$.

Artist: Ettore Spalletti
Title: Senza titolo, rosa

Exquisitely elegant, and yet immensely profound, the work of Ettore Spalletti is often compared to the precious Renaissance frescoes which decorate the many ancient churches of his homeland, Italy. Like these frescoes, Spalletti’s paintings emit a quiet beauty, their peaceful intensity inviting silent contemplation, almost minimalist but also utterly sumptuous. Spalletti’s works require a huge amount of time and effort, and their smooth surfaces (which comprise a mixture of pigments and chalk) are built up and rubbed down, polished and buffed to perfection. Only at the very end of the creative process does the final, all-important colour emerge. In works such as Senza titolo, rosa of 2010 we find the soft palette of Giotto or Piero della Francesca restyled into the abstract, reworked for the modern age.

Price: $ 49,000 - 73,000

“Senza titolo, rosa”

My Italian is a bit rusty, but if I remember correctly, this translates to “I can’t believe I’m getting away with this shit, Rosa”

The auction house compares this “utterly sumptuous” white square to Renaissance frescoes. Lets take a look.

The resemblance is.. its mind boggling. Tears fill my eyes to see Spaletti so skillfully imitate the colors, shapes and emotional motif of his Renaissance progenitors. Nero was known to have uttered “Qualis artifex pereo” (What artist dies in me) on his deathbed. Spalletti’s words should be “what artist never lived in me”

Artist: Karla Black
Title: Unknown

Sorry to pick on poor Karla, but this one was such a gem. It instantly reminded me of the Christmas gingerbread house that my 2-year old made this past December. Except my kid’s house.. ahem, art, was more profound, had better aesthetic quality and was structurally sound, whereas Karla’s ginger house of cotton-candy horrors looks like it may implode on itself at any moment. You be the judge.

.. and finally, I leave you with this.

Creature sketch

Creature sketching using a fantastic open source and free drawing application called MyPaint.

Running this application on my laptop (running Linux Mint), very impressed with it so far. Its very stable, has pressure sensitivity to my Wacom drawing pen and has tons of plugins and brushes. If youre running windows, they have a windows installer also. Really cool stuff. I now have 2 open-source and free applications that I always use for graphic design, InkScape (vector drawing) and MyPaint (painting and sketching).




The rise of American political mobs

mobrule(click image for larger size)

We are all witnessing a massive political circus being played out on the national stage as two champions of populism are busy forming their supporters into a power base that can bring them into the seat of presidential power. On one side is Donald Trump, a real estate ‘mogul’ and a billionaire who promises to make American great again, on the other Bernie Sanders, a career politician and lifelong proponent of socialism and income redistribution.

I dont want to write what I fully think of these two candidates, that can take up a few pages, but I wanted to contrast the current state of politics with that of ancient Rome, and the rising tide of violence we are now beginning to see at Trump rallies.

Its become a cliche to compare and contrast US with Rome, but in this case I think the signs are true and obvious, and we can learn direct lessons from historical precedents. What we are seeing now is a slow burn of political hate, grievance and victim-hood politics and a loss of basic civility. These are all very very disturbing signs for the health of the American Republic.

Mob Rule as a political weapon

In the last two weeks or so, I’ve noticed a very disturbing phenomenon coming from both the left and right strands of these populist movements. On the Trump side, there are many documented cases of assaults and harassment of reporters, forced removal of protestors and an almost idol-like reverence for The Donald, who has made a lot of very large promises to his potential constituents based on a very shaky political history. On the Sanders side, the main element of forceful disturbance seems to be coming out of the Black Lives Matter movement whose followers even hijacked Sanders’ own rally at one point.

A more sinister Leftist movement however has been brewing for years on college campuses, where rabid ‘social justice warriors’ shut down any form of debate, dialogue or conversation and enforce political groupthink. This is a whole other topic in itself, but its a very dangerous trend because an entire generation of students are completely comfortable denying people their 1st Amendment rights and group-shaming them in order to promote their version of ‘equality’ or ‘justice’. This is in essence a form of fascism.

This strand of fascism is now translating itself into the current political campaign. The latest Trump rally in Chicago a few days ago was shut down due to anti-Trump protesters rushing the stage, trying to hijack the podium and disturb the rally, while some Trump supporters were also involved in fist fights and low-level violence. This is on top of the fact that a small minority of Trump supporters seem to be racist white nationalists and anti-Semites while a small minority of Sanders supporters are black supremacists within the BLM movement or unhinged leftists yearning for a ‘revolution’ egged on by the mostly leftist media spin. Together this creates a deadly cocktail.

This pattern will likely worsen and we may even see an attempted Trump assassination. Our Republic may very well descend into mob violence during this election cycle.

Res Publica

The Roman state began as a Republic, a Res Publica (of the People), built on rigidly defined social classes, a code of common Law and revered established wealthy political families like the Julia, Bruti, Aquilia and Sempronii. Politics were usually done in the same way they are done today, the common masses (plebs) in a constant struggle with the Patricians (wealthy aristocrat land-owners), promoted Tribunes who effectively argued the Plebian case to the Senate and had the power to veto laws seen as being unfavorable to the poor masses.


Roman power structure not unlike our balance of powers between the 3 branches

Like the Roman political system, our current system is run on patronage and influence in the form of political donors, interest groups and lobbyists, who spend lavishly on candidates to sway their voting in favor of a given interest. Hillary Clinton is seen as a prime example of the corruption within this patronage system and is one of the major reasons why Trump and Sanders are so popular, as they are viewed to be free of corruption or monetary influence (a notion more true of Sanders than Trump). The reason why Sanders is so popular is that he is a modern day People’s Tribune, arguing his case for more public spending towards social welfare at the expense of the Patrician class, which of course causes political pushback and resentment between the two sides. There are obviously more complex reasons behind the rise of each populist, but these ancient societal elements are a major factor.

Populism and Murder

Towards the middle of 2nd century BC, the Roman republic began to crumble and was finally dissolved in 27 BC in favor of a dictatorship under Augustus. There are many reasons why the Republic fell, which are better covered in many history books on this subject, but the one I wanted to focus on was the breakdown of civil discourse and mob violence.

Roman history is full of examples of political murder, assassinations and mobs. The massive civil war between supporters of Sulla and Marius was a precedent for bloody violence in the name of political orientation. Great orators like Cicero were slain by frenzied political mobs who went on witch hunts across Roman cities and usually confiscated property of the deceased to be given to political cronies. For all the merits of civilization, politics in Rome was a barbaric practice, Cicero’s head was cut off and placed in the Forum. All this for being a political opponent of Marc Antony.


But even prior to Sulla’s bloody dictatorship, a striking example of such violence was the case of the Gracchus brothers. Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus were plebian magistrates who argued for land reform to benefit Rome’s poor and landless classes. Their proposal would redistribute land taken from aristocratic families.

Central to the Gracchi reforms was an attempt to address economic distress and its military consequences. Much public land had been divided among large landholders and speculators who further expanded their estates by driving peasants off their farms. While their old lands were being worked by slaves, the peasants were often forced into idleness in Rome where they had to subsist on handouts due to a scarcity of paid work. They could not legally join the army because they did not meet the property qualification and this, together with the lack of public land to give in exchange for military service and the mutinies in the Numantine War, caused recruitment problems and troop shortages.

The Gracchi aimed to address these problems by reclaiming lands from wealthy members of the senatorial class that could then be granted to soldiers; by restoring land to displaced peasants; by providing subsidized grain for the needy and by having the Republic pay for the clothing of its poorest soldiers.[2]

The reforms proved lethal to the brothers. Tiberius was clubbed to death at the Forum by a frenzied mob, some of it consisting of his fellow Tribunes who feared that these reforms would strip them of their own coveted estates and latifundias. Tiberius’ brother Gaius later committed suicide as a mob approached him for a lynching. The reforms died with the Gracchi brothers.

note the described aftermath of these events,


The emergence of new forces of urban factions, rural voters, and others, engaging in continued conflict with each other for their own interests, meant that the problem of effective governance awaited resolution. The populist government of the Gracchi had come to an end by violence; and this provided a brutal precedent that would be followed by many other rulers of Rome.[9]


A deadlocked government awaiting a resolution, in need of a rescue by an energetic populist making promises he can’t keep. Sounds very familiar.

The Roman republic subsequently dissolved when its citizens could no longer promote interests and ideas through elected representatives, nor engage in policy negotiation, but instead opted for a zero-sum game of political violence, choosing their champions who ultimately became “princips” and Emperors. The mob violence seen during the Gracchi years would return again and again during the subsequent centuries, and especially during the Late Imperial period with constant political in-fighting (see Year of the Four Emperors), cronyism, mob violence, blacklists and constant purges of political targets and their families. The civil discourse between the Senate and the interests of the people as represented by the Tribunes was over.

Cult of Personality

An especially repugnant and worrying trend is the idolization of Trump by some of his supporters. Despite objective facts about his political inconsistencies and statements, many Trump supporters have a very creepy tendency to idolize their champion and completely ignore fair questions about his policy. Reporters are often maligned, attacked or threatened with a lawsuit for implying or asking the wrong question. He threatens to use libel laws to enforce media compliance. Trump’s populism gives the people what they want to hear without making them analyze how those promises will be made true.

Historically, political idol worship precedes a dictatorship. Augustus was the first to propagandize himself as the First Citizen, a Princip, who ‘found Rome a city of brick and left it a city of marble’. His later followers established a cult to worship him as a demigod.


Roman denari showing Octavian aka Augustus Caesar “Divus Iulius”, the Deified Julius

There were countless examples of idolatry with many dictator figures throughout history. In modern times the obvious examples are usually of the leftist/Communist Cult of Personality, like Stalin, Mao, Tito, Che Guevarra and the recently deceased Hugo Chavez. The disturbing sight of Trump worship is that it shows all the hallmarks of historical Leftist totalitarianism.

The obvious signs of this are unquestionable loyalty, in-group aggression towards out-group behavior, blindness to obvious gaps in the leader’s logic or arguments, eagerness to use violence in order to promote political goals and a belief in the Messiah-like powers of the leader to promote change and do a clean sweep of the old corrupt system.  These same points can also be attributed to Sanders supporters who already showed signs of aggression and violence and suppression of free speech.

Taken together, these two massive strands of populism are a sign of a dying Republic.

When people believe that shutting down free speech is legitimate, ending free-trade in favor of mercantile protectionism, using violence, threats and libel laws to enforce obediency and swallowing populist rhetoric as fact without analyzing the details, this is in fact a sign of the collapse of basic social cohesion. A Res Publica cannot exist without the general public believing in the legitimacy of their own society and the validity of their own citizens’ opinions. You dont have to agree with everyone’s ideology or opinions, but these opinions are legitimate opinions of fellow citizens. Once these fellow citizens become a hated ‘other’, the Republic cannot continue to function.

If you’re interested in Roman politics, I highly suggest these 2 great books,

Outer Space or Bust!

Growing up in Russia, I had many kids books to read, but one of my favorites was a book on space, rockets and exploration. The book is called “Outer Space or Bust!” by Genadi Chernenko, its written in English and has some fantastic pencil illustrations. Its Soviet-centric since it came out of that time and area, but it talks about all major scientific breakthroughs from all nations, including US scientists and engineers like Robert Goddard. For US readers, its interesting to read non-US centric take on the space race and you’ll be surprised to learn about major figures in rocketry and engineering like Korolev and Tsiolkovsky. Russian rockets were very advanced and reliable, and many designs from 50s and 60s are still used today to get payload into orbit

I’ve had this book since I was 7 or 8 and its always been lying on my bookshelf. I’ve now scanned every page of this book and converted it to PDF (could not find a copy anywhere on the Internet).  Now everyone else can get the pleasure of reading about space, rocketry and exploration.  The book was published by Raduga (Rainbow) publishers in now defunct USSR.

Download the book here as PDF

Books like this inspired countless of kids to go into science and engineering, and the product of this is Pluto flybys and Mars landings, and in the future, Mars colonization.

Some illustrations from the book.




Visions of the future