Category Archives: Educator

An Awful Giraffe Drawing by Leonardo da Vinci

Polymath and “Painter” Leonardo da Vinci,

On this Friday the 13th I thought it would be appropriate to post a particularly awful giraffe, and as I began searching my files I received an email. Innocently enough, I unsuspectingly opened it to find the most … I can’t even find the words. How does one describe the failed efforts of the most gifted polymath that has ever lived, Leonardo da Vinci? Do I posthumously congratulate him for the effort? Do I lie down and hope the nausea goes away? Do I try and mobilize Pretty Awful Giraffe-ites to contact the Louvreand have this mockery removed?

“Painter”? Yeah, and I’m Queen Latifah (I’m not Queen Latifah)

I think I’ll go with the second option and let Mr. Lucas Rayala take the wheel from here:

This well-known painting by LDV, while beloved by many in the world, is in fact a very horrible attempt to draw a giraffe.  Perhaps the worst ever.  While the neck length approaches believability, the snout is completely wrong, utterly failing to incorporate the mouth and nose in a cohesive semblance of an ungulate mammals jaw structure.  Intended to be a picture of a giraffe standing on its hind legs and eyeing a leafy branch somewhere behind the viewer, the front hooves have been mangled and forced into a crossed pattern to amateurishly fit inside the canvas space.  Also, proper giraffes are two-toed, not four (or five?!) as LDV depicts.  This beast’s habitat has been purposefully blurred in the background because LDV, despite his much-flaunted intellect, was obviously uncertain of its native environment.

I think I’m going to be sick.

Theoretical Physicist Lawrence Krauss Awful Giraffe 4 23 11

Theoretical Physicist and Author Lawrence Krauss

In light of the holiday season I thought I would treat everyone to a gift that has been sitting in the giraffe library for quite a while. Unfortunately, there is no exciting, adventure-filled story behind this as Dr. Krauss simply said, “Everything I do is better than Kaku” when I showed him Michio Kaku’s Uni-giraffe (he really doesn’t like that I guy), but you be the judge!

Theoretical Physicist Lawrence Krauss

Lawrence Krauss (wiki; web) is a theoretical physicist who teaches at Arizona State University and is the director of its Origins Project. Perhaps best known for his book The Physics of Star Trek (1995), Krauss is a popularizer of science who has written editorials in many publications and is a frequent guest on National Public Radio’s “Science Friday”. In January 2012 he has a book coming out that will address why there is something rather than nothing; in fact, in A Universe from Nothing he will make the case that “not only can something arise from nothing, something will always arise from nothing.”

Seems straightforward enough.

Though sometimes nothing is better than something.

A wooly mammoth choking to death a giraffe drawn by William Wilkins from the Hot Springs mammoth excavation site in South Dakota

Mammoth Site Asst. Curator Justin Wilkins (Mammoth versus Giraffe?)

Way back in March, Lucas and I were leading a bus trip (The “Pay it Forward” Tour) across the country for Students Today Leaders Forever, which gives college students the opportunity to spend their spring breaks doing volunteer service in different communities along the way. One such stop found us at The Mammoth Site of Hot Springs, SD, which (for being in South Dakota) was surprisingly awesome. Spending an afternoon scraping inches of soil off the surface, surveying the field for good spots and trying to contain one’s excitement as we hope the calcium deposit on the fault line holds a bone if not a 26,000 year old wolf cropolite, one quickly realizes how big of a nerd they are when they begin to role play Stephen Jay Gould.

As the endeavor came to an end we made the ask to the Principle Investigator of the site Larry Agenbroad, who is also apparently the go-to mammoth expert for a slew of BBC/Discovery Channel documentaries, but he pointed out that one of his graduate students, a young assistant curator named William Justin Wilkins, was the site’s real artist. Not feeling up for a fight, I took Agenbroad’s word for what it was, hoping that he knew best. And as I should have never doubted, he did.

I have already ranted and raved about the offensiveness of portraying giraffes in, well, compromising situations, but I must say that this is piece is absolutely sublime, full of imagination. I mean, just look at it

A wooly mammoth choking to death a giraffe drawn by William Wilkins from the Hot Springs mammoth excavation site in South Dakota… There‘s just no way a mammoth would have that kind of reach on a giraffe.

But this does raise the question: Which animal would win in a fight?

A martian giraffe drawn by PZ Myers

Atheist Blogger and Writer PZ Myers

Professor PZ Myers in London

PZ Myers (@pzmyers) is a biologist an professor here at the University of Minnesota, Morris, who is best known for his blog Pharyngula and because of it is often ranked on lists of the most influential living atheists. He also has a book coming out in Spring 2012 that some are predicting may make him the Fifth Horseman of New Atheism. Yeah, almost-South-Dakota Minnesota is pretty great.

Unfortunately, though he lives only a few blocks from me I don’t get as many opportunities to talk to him about politics and science as I would wish. In fact, on the few occasions we’re in the same room I tend to sweat nervously and try my damndest to make sure that the buttons on my shirt are in direct vertical alignment with my belt buckle (as every good gentleman knows). The consequence of this is some of the most awkward silence I have ever been a part of. And I’m a fairly awkward guy.

Because the story of how this giraffe was obtained is not really that interesting (the Morris Freethinkers, Jen McCreight and PZ Myers were in a small town bar; he drew a giraffe to humor a kid with a giraffe fetish; I feel ashamed for killing the conversation) I will try my best to compensate by sharing a story that often comes to memory. It’s nothing exciting, I’ll admit, but meh.

In 2009 PZ was named the Humanist of the Year by The Humanist, a magazine about critical inquiry and social concern, and was given a very nice little award that he can carry around to show people that he’s not just a New Atheist but also a Humanist. At least that was the explanation he gave for lugging the award to a public lecture he was giving about the New Atheists. After a lively discussion – and at times, debate – the room cleared out and a few of those interested in continuing the conversation (including PZ) made their way across campus where the Morris Freethinkers (James, Kele and I) and the Morris Philosophy Club had an opportunity to exchange ideas and opinions. All in all, it was an exciting little event made all the more so by the fact that several of the campus’ most opinionated professors were trying to rattling each other’s cages. With the night carrying on a little later than perhaps anticipated for, the spectators (and even the participants) began to dwindle until there were only a few folks left, of which I happened to be one of them.

Getting ready to head out, I noticed out of the corner of my eye that PZ, who was already gone by this point, had forgotten his award. Uncertain as to what the next step would be, we happened to be lucky because one of my friends had his phone number was able to give him a quick ring; he was already across campus, but he was willing to wait for us to catch up. In a rush to head out the door I made the mistake of laying my bare hands upon the statue, which sent my mind into a rush – images of pain, suffering, reason, logic and Carl Sagan flashing and flaring.

Photograph taken by Milek Jakubiec

I awoke on the floor to Kele’s soft hand upon my forehead, asking, “What did you see?”

My lips could not formulate words, only tremble. As my vision began to refocus I caught myself gasping for air, unable now to breathe as a single static image held itself in my mind. Without thinking I turned to the garbage can that had been placed beside me, and lest I be too graphic (or sound too foolish), dear reader, I’ll simply say that unfortunately the great vastness of the English lexicon fails me. I can only imagine in the abstract, with the trouble expected from my mortal frame, such descriptors, but I believe them to be very themes of the Poetry of Cthulhu.

“Don’t worry,” there was nonchalance in Kele’s voice, “it happens to all of us.”

Echoes of screams and A.C. Grayling’s lecture on Darwin, Humanism and Science beat upon my skull with every pulse. There are no words.

“‘Everything has been said, but not everyone has said it yet,'” Kele said.

He could read in my eyes my confusion as I spit out, “what?”

“It’s from the Grayling lecture; again, the Humanist netherworld recycles the same lectures,” James said as he lifted me to a chair, making sure the garbage can was never too far from me. “Oddly enough though, Mark got a chapter from The Greatest Show on Earth.”

Who’s Mark?” I asked.

Their eyes failed to meet mine as they turned to the window, the evening breeze leaking in, the moon wondering how the tides go in and out. “Only the truly damned get Dawkins.”

I have never asked about nor have I ever heard about Mark ever again.

“Bu- But how?”

“Haven’t you caught on?”

The room was spinning. I was descending into the caves of madness, where even a flicker of light sends shadows dancing upon the walls. “It’s a -” I paused, unable (or was I unwilling?) to accept what these shades were whispering, miming, a carnival of specters offering hollow warnings of -

“Horcrux.”

The word rolled off my lips like raindrops upon a great canopy, collecting until the momentary burst when it all falls like a shower upon the life below. “It’s a Horcrux. A Horcrux. Horcrux.”

My answer was greeted only with nods, the room solemn that I had to learn this through experience. James filled the silence, “He’s had it for a while now.”

I was struck, “Is this it?”

“No, there are more – his iPad, his beard, the basilisk cephalopod he keeps in his office – this is but one of many, each containing a little part of the Fifth Horseman.”

Before I could ask any more questions Kele wrapped the award in a small towel, careful not to lay his skin upon it. Life was slowly returning to my legs as I was helped to my feet and led to the doorway, but before we could even close the door a soft, gentle voice greeted us.

“Oh, hello! You were taking a while so I figured I would start walking toward you, but apparently you never left.” A thin smile spread across his face, “Do you have my … award?” His arms shot out to grab it from Kele’s hands before a reply could even be uttered. “I’m sure you know how much this means to me.”

A great chill ran up my spine.

A martian giraffe drawn by PZ Myers

Anyway, here’s a “Martian Giraffe.”

Chris Stedman's Pretty Awful Giraffe

Writer and Blogger Chris Stedman

For as much as I enjoy hyping up the website I must say that this post marks a great turning point in the history of Pretty Awful Giraffes; it marks the first time we have ever actually been contacted by someone who should not be drawing a giraffe. So it was with great joy I was able to find this on the Twitter account a few days ago:

ChrisDStedman:

@AwfulGiraffes Bahaha! I love your website more than I can say. And you’re from Minnesota?! Too awesome for words. Keep it up!

And,

@AwfulGiraffes P.S. I’d be honored to draw a giraffe! Hilariously enough, when I doodle I mostly draw giraffes. Not that they’re good…

Chris Stedman is the Interfaith and Community Service Fellow for the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard University and the Managing Director of State of Formation, a new initiative at the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue. A fellow Minnesotan and graduate of Augsburg College, Stedman is also the founder and author of the blog NonProphet Status. In addition to this he writes for the Washington Post’s “On Faith” blog and The Huffington Post. Lastly, as if all of this was not accomplishment enough, he works to foster positive and productive dialogue between faith communities and the nonreligious and is currently writing a memoir related to this work for Beacon Press.

Frankly, I could go on and on about all of the great things Chris is doing but it would probably just make you feel bad. In fact, you might reach the conclusion that you’re just a twenty-something on the prairie who spends his time on the internet anonymously harassing Gary Snyder and David Silverman because they are unwilling (read: mature) to draw pictures of African animals; being emotionally attached to this project, every criticism you write will only be punctuated with tears. (Hypothetically speaking, of course).

I’ve digressed.

Convening the editorial review board (we never rubber stamp here) there were major reservations about whether or not Chris fit the general requirements of someone who should not be drawing a giraffe (after all he did explicitly state that he frequently draws giraffe). This great mission statement/identity debate went on for almost all of three minutes before we reached a consensus: it only seemed right to give a fellow Minnesotan a chance. Chris Stedman would be the next name to enter the GDBPWSNBDG canon.

Alerting him of this immense honor and privilege (something I’m sure he will now include on his blog’s biography page *cough*), we inferred a tone in his reaction Tweet reminiscent of a child getting the Nerf Super Soaker Hydro Cannon for Christmas.

@AwfulGiraffes Wow, thanks! It’s a deal! What’s the best way for me to do this? DM me if you want my email.

In addition to this he was even kind enough to attach a little note.

I’m not sure if this is cheating but yes, I drew my giraffe in Paint. And yes, I downloaded Paint specifically for this purpose. I drew it on my laptop with the touchpad, which was much harder than I anticipated. 

In case it isn’t clear: this is an image of a baby giraffe hanging out on my lap, and we’re friends (the heart should be a major hint). Because when you spend as much time working in front of the computer as I do, having imaginary cartoon giraffe friends is what you’re reduced to. But as someone who is working to bridge diverse communities, I’m not going to let differences like “one of us doesn’t actually exist” get in the way of our friendship! 

Finally: your website is awesome. Thanks again for inviting me to contribute.

Chris Stedman and A Pretty Awful Giraffe (May 2, 2011)

I’m not going to make any inappropriate jokes about where the giraffe is coming from. None.

Theoretical Physicist Michio Kaku's Awful Giraffe (4 7 11)

Author and Theoretical Physicist Michio Kaku

Photo Credit: Zachary Maxwell Stertz

For those who do not know, Michio Kaku (website; twitter) is a theoretical physicist at City University of New York and co-founder of string field theory. Just as importantly – and this is the context in which I first discovered him – he is a popularizer of science in the stead of the late Carl Sagan. Essentially he is one of only a handful of scientists taking the initiative to condense great scientific ideas into an easily digestible form. In a world that unfortunately casts a paranoid eye to the sciences, this is a virtue; through his books Physics of the Impossible (2008) and Physics of the Future (2011) Kaku reminds us all that science is, frankly, cool.[1]

So it was under this pretense that I made my way to the University of Minnesota’s Twin Cities campus to attend a lecture and book signing by him. Having read his short biography on Albert Einstein last summer, Einstein’s Cosmos (2004), along with some work by Hawking, Feynman, Sagan and so on, I was obsessed with the guy. Naturally, this all led to long hours on YouTube watching interviews and clips of old Nova programs. [2] So the moment I learned that Kaku would be making a stop in Minnesota for his Physics of the Future (2011) book tour, every calendar I owned was marked marked marked and any scheduling conflict would have to be skipped skipped skipped.

(My apologies, Seungho, for missing International Law)

Arriving at the UMN book store at 6:20pm, I had more than enough to pick up his book I reserved online along with the two tickets for the reserved seating that came with it. Worried that I may not be able to get a good spot – a sizeable crowd was already forming – I was actually quite surprised to see that most of the reserved seating (the first three rows of about twenty) was essentially empty. For those unfamiliar with Minnesotan culture: even when we have reserved seating to see someone that we admire, we want to be close but not that close. Sitting near the very front, I’ve included a picture to show how uncomfortably close I was to the signing table, the point at where I could probably reach out and touch him as he spoke at the podium.

Josh Preston sitting uncomfortably close to Michio Kaku's signing table

Pictured: the reason why I am not a photographer

After forcing small talk for a while with one of the physics kids next to me, one of the booksellers addresses the crowd: “The event is not starting yet, but I just have to inform everyone that while Professor Kaku was in Switzerland last week he caught a cold and has laryngitis …”

My heart jumps a beat – That motherfuckin’ bitch stood me up.

“… And because he wants to be able to answer everyone’s questions …”

I’m sorry, baby. You know I was just a little upset.

“… He has asked us to find someone willing to give his PowerPoint presentation. We do have a script so it wouldn’t be too hard.”

Impulsively, my hand goes up and she thanks me and hands me the script. It’s only when I realize that I’m now holding the script that I understand the full implications of what I have just done. My hands begin to shake. I’m becoming nauseous. Dear God, what the hell have I done?

But I take a deep breath.

And another.

Again.

I’ve given speeches to large crowds before and I have more than enough time to go over the script and the notes for the 51 slide PowerPoint. On the plus side, I can technically put “Lecturer of Theoretical Physics and Futurism” on my resume. Also, at least he can’t turn me down for a giraffe without being a total jerk.

Some time passes and I’m becoming more and more confident in my abilities by the time Kaku takes to the podium shortly after 7:00pm. He introduces himself, talks briefly about the 300 interviews he conducted with some of the best scientists and thinkers around for his book and then apologizes for not being able to give his presentation himself: “When Einstein went to Sweden he left with an equation; when I went I left with a cold.” At this point one of booksellers asks me to stand. I’m given no further direction and now I look like a complete asshole.

I approach the nearest microphone, which is a little distant from the podium but not enough to really cause me any problems. When I ask one of the tech people if the microphone works I’m reminded that the entire event is being recorded and that I should just go to the podium.

I take a deep breath.

And another.

Why Me?

Kaku thanks me for the help and when I look out to the crowd I feel a little claustrophobic (later one of the booksellers will tell me that she estimated a turnout of over 500). I forget to introduce myself even though I consider the shamelessly plugging this website (I don’t) and begin moving into the presentation. For anyone that has ever done public speaking, the first few paragraphs are often the hardest to spit out, but the moment they are done confidence balloons and one even becomes a little cocky as you incorporate inflection, intonation and ad lib and unnecessary facial gestures all while mentally revising Cicero’s epitaph to read: “Yeah, he was OK, if you’re into that.”

Or something like that.

Before I know it the presentation is over, I shake his hand and then take my seat high as hell.[3] There’s a brief video followed by questions and answers, which goes by smoothly, and now he’s finally ready to begin signing books. Already at the front of the line I decide to try to cash in the chips I earned through the evening and make the pitch …

“I can’t draw a giraffe,” says Kaku, which is perfect since I implied that fact during the pitch. Also, I’m already well aware that he’s a little sketchy when it comes to biology.

A point made all that much clearer by the fact that this uni-giraffe is apparently evolving bipedalism.


[1] I purposely use his latest books (of the 8+ in his repertoire) as demonstrative of the “coolness” in science specifically because I imagine his textbooks and 170+ journal articles have the exact opposite effect.

[2] I was going through a serious physics/astronomy phase that, thank God, I have now fallen out of and substituted with heavy drinking.

[3] If anyone is curious about his handshake: it’s disappointingly weak.

Robert Bruininks' Pretty Awful Giraffe Drawing

President of the University of Minnesota Robert Bruininks

As you will find on his Wikipedia page, Bruininks has been working with the University of Minnesota since 1968 and was named the 15th president of the system in 2002. In May 2010 he made his intentions clear that he would be stepping down as president, which led the creation of a search committee that eventually selected president-designate Eric Kaler of New York. So with that said, it must be made clear that of everyone I have approached asking for a drawing, my confrontation with President Bruininks had to of been not only the least fruitful (he drew an amoeba and labeled it “Bob’s Horse”) but also the most awkward.

I found myself in the Twin Cities campus in the McNamara center on February 10, 2011, for a luncheon with the Board of Regents to discuss the state of the university financially, the direction it would be moving down the road, how students could work with the administration, etc., and happened to run into the president. While I have seen him at several functions, my personal interaction with him has been light to say the least; even so, my few interactions with him have been nice to say the least. So I did not think this would be that big of a deal (it certainly had not  been so with other folks), but after making the pitch all the president could do was stare at me.

“I’m sorry, what did you say?” He asked.

I repeated myself, trying to maintain my confidence; this is after all a serious business.

“I guess I can do that,” Bruininks says, taking the pen and paper from my hand and using a nearby table for a flat writing surface. Compared to those who use a single, solid line to create an outline, I see that he uses the pen to scratch a half-inch long head followed by a peanut body, which is then given legs and a tail (?). Out of the desire to be polite I try to bite my tongue – this is the worst thing I have ever seen; absolutely no effort – and can feel my tongue shed blood when declares, “It’s not much, but I’ll call it ‘Bob’s Horse.'”

He then signs it and hands it to me.

I die a little bit inside.

Robert Bruininks' Pretty Awful Giraffe Drawing

This is not a giraffe.