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Today’s post is solely an infographic from the web–but it is a powerful infographic that bears a great deal of attention.  Above are the current nations of the Earth represented by population rather than landmass.  This population cartogram  was created by Max Roser to make people think more clearly about the real nature of the world’s human population.  Each little block represents half a million people.  Countries which loom large in world attention effectively vanish (like Russia, where mismanagement and grief are causing the population to shrink) yet countries which don’t appear in the shrill daily newscasts–places like Nigeria, Bangladesh, and Indonesia–are revealed as titans.  You can find the original in this article (which is fortunate, since WordPress will undoubtedly make reading the version above effectively impossible), along with a number of additional fascinating graphics.   We will talk more about the meaning of some of this later on, but for now it is worth just scrutinizing the cartogram and marveling at a world where Madagascar is bigger than Australia.

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Today’s post features an excitingly strange intersection between 3 of our favorite topics here at Ferrebeekeeper: crowns, China, and cities.   This is the Bund Center in the Huangpu area of Shanghai.  The building was finished in 2002 by the architects of John Portman and Associates.  It stands 198 meters (650 feet) tall—approximately the same height as the Sony Tower in Manhattan (which is probably now named after some other monolithic company, but which New Yorkers will instantly know as the building that looks like a Queen Anne highboy).  Like most skyscrapers, the purpose of this tower is surprisingly banal—it holds a bunch of offices for paper-pushers, financiers, and cell phone makers—however the top is anything but dull!  Look at that splendid daisy-style crown in glittering steel and lights.  I really thought the Chinese were on to something with their lovable propensity for making amazing novelty buildings during the 90s and the aughts.  The central authorities have since cracked down on that trend out of fear that too much imagination and fun would make the Chinese subjects less biddable to the whims of their new emperor erm president-for-life, but frankly we Americans have no moral authority anymore when it comes to subjects like evil autocrats and gaudy/banal towers.  All of which is to say, I like the top of the Bund Center!  I wish I could go to Shanghai and get a closer look at the new model for an international super-city…

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Do you know the story of Elijah and the prophets of Baal?  It is in the Bible in the First Book of Kings Chapter 18.  Israel was then ruled by King Ahab who was unduly influenced by his fancy Phoenician wife, Jezebel, (a Baal worshiper!).  Because of the royal couple’s idolatry and persecution of God’s chosen prophets, the land suffered three years of drought and was turning into a desert.  The great prophet Elijah had been in hiding during this time, but, as the drought changed the political climate (in addition to the real climate), he revealed himself for a dramatic supernatural face-off with the 450 prophets of Baal atop Mount Carmel.

The terms of the contest were thus: the prophets of Baal and Elijah would each sacrifice a bull and cut it to pieces and lay it on their respective altar (repairing the neglected altar of Yahweh is a big part of this story…but I will leave the altar-repair instructions out).  Neither camp would light the burnt offerings themselves:  instead they would pray to the respective deities for fire.

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The prophets of Baal went first (which sounds optimal, but think of how this always goes in the Olympics).  They prayed all day–indeed Elijah mocks them at noon suggesting their god must be busy thinking or important doing divine things or just couldn’t hear them.  At the end of the day, at sacrifice time, their bull was unconsumed by divine fire.

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Elijah then sacrificed his bull and laid it out upon the altar.  He then soaked the sacrifice with four barrels of water, which filled up a shallow trench he had dug around the altar. When these preparations were complete, Elijah called upon the God of Israel as described in the Bible

36 And it came to pass at the time of the offering of the evening sacrifice, that Elijah the prophet came near, and said, Lord God of Abraham, Isaac, and of Israel, let it be known this day that thou art God in Israel, and that I am thy servant, and that I have done all these things at thy word.

37 Hear me, O Lord, hear me, that this people may know that thou art the Lord God, and that thou hast turned their heart back again.38 Then the fire of the Lord fell, and consumed the burnt sacrifice, and the wood, and the stones, and the dust, and licked up the water that was in the trench.39 And when all the people saw it, they fell on their faces: and they said, The Lord, he is the God; the Lord, he is the God.40 And Elijah said unto them, Take the prophets of Baal; let not one of them escape. And they took them: and Elijah brought them down to the brook Kishon, and slew them there.41 And Elijah said unto Ahab, Get thee up, eat and drink; for there is a sound of abundance of rain.42 So Ahab went up to eat and to drink. And Elijah went up to the top of Carmel; and he cast himself down upon the earth, and put his face between his knees…

So why am I telling this story? Is it a parable about wicked leaders and their foreign consorts? Is this a story about divine wrath concerning a king’s corruption and God’s complete control of the weather?  Is this about how even the most revered religious traditions sometimes need to be tested by evidence-based criteria? Am I perhaps somehow suggesting that our own land has been given over metaphorically (or maybe literally) to Baal and his charlatan acolytes?

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No! Of course not! Our very own evangelical leaders have assured us from their private jets and mega-churches that our national leadership is exactly as it should be. This post is just an excuse to show some crazy art concerning prophetic contests!  Look at these wild pictures!  I particularly like the Baal worshipers–it is a shame what happened to them, but, after all, this is only a story. I, for one, certainly don’t believe in Biblical literalism.

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(Speaking of pictures, WordPress has made it impossible for me to properly label images without causing them to go off-center such that they are half obscured, but this last picture is by Lucas Cranach, about whom I have written much).

 

 

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“Hey, wait! What the heck?” This is what you may be saying after yesterday’s post, which featured an unlabeled picture of a mystery sea creature (above).

Well worry no more! The mysterious creature is a “sea mouse”, the colloquial name for a genus of polychaete worms which live in the Atlantic Ocean (and the Mediterranean Sea).  The proper genus name for the sea mouses (mice?) is Aphrodita, after the Greek goddess of love (apparently some exceedingly lonely 18th century taxonomists thought the furry oval sea animal with a ventral groove along its bottom resembled the sacred goddess of sexuality in some generative aspect).

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Sea mouses (mice?) are scavengers which feed on the decaying bodies of marine animals [probably: a few sources thought they were hunters].  They live close to shore in the intertidal zone where they creep and burrow as they try to find carrion and avoid predators. To my mind, their English name is vastly better than their scientific name since they scurry furtively across the ocean bottom and since they are covered in what superficially looks like scraggly hair.  This “hair” is more properly called setae—bristles which protect the worm and or help it to hide or communicate.  The setae around the edges of the mice are covered with photonic crystals so they look drab from most angles but sparkle like gorgeous blue/green/gold opals when held a certain way.

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Speaking of bristles, sea mice move by means of parapodia—bristly appendages which serve as feet and which also look somewhat like hair. The creatures measure from 7–15 centimeters (3–6 inches) long; however, some giants can grow to a length of 30 centimeters (12 inches).

The febrile imaginings of long dead natural scientists aside, sea mice (mouses?) are all hermaphrodites with both male and female gonads and sexual organs [probably…different sources disagreed upon their gender orientation, and given today’s social mores, it was thought impolite to inquire].  The worms are incapable of fertilizing themselves though.

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Of course, some of you might still have some questions about this living technicolor hermaphroditic toupee which crawls around on the ocean bottom eating horrible dead things, but I can help you no further.  My limited knowledge of sea mice is all used up.  They aren’t even mollusks (they are more closely related to…well to us…than to clams and squid). Based on the many bracketed addenda and the numerous weasel words in this article, our understanding of these things is pretty superficial. If you want to make a name for yourself in marine biology this may be your chance, provided you can spend a lifetime underwater watching polychaete worms eat and make love!

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Today I wanted to write more about giant clams and their astonishing ability to “farm” algae within their body (and then live off of the sweet sugars which the algae produce).  I still want to write about that, but it proving to be a complicated subject: giant clams mastered living on solar energy a long time ago, and we are still trying to figure out the full nature of their symbiotic systems.

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Today, instead we are going to look at the phenomenon which gives the mantles of giant clams their amazingly beautiful iridescent color. It is the same effect which provides the shimmering color of hummingbird feathers and blue morpho wings, or the glistening iridescence of cuttlefish.  All of these effects are quite different from pigmentation as generally conceived:  if you grind up a lapis lazuli in a pestle, the dust will be brilliant blue (you have made ultramarine!) but if you similarly grind up a peacock feather, the dust will be gray, alas! This is because the glistening reflective aqua-blue of the feather is caused by how microscopic lattices within the various surfaces react with light (or I suppose, I should really go ahead and call these lattices “nanostructure” since they exist at a scale much smaller than micrometers). These lattices are known as “photonic crystals” and they appear in various natural iridescent materials—opals, feathers, and scales.  Scientists have long studied these materials because of their amazing optic properties, however it is only since the 1990s that we have begun to truly understand and engineer similar structures on our own.

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Physicists from the 19th century onward have understood that these iridescent color-effects are caused by diffraction within the materials themselves, however actually engineering the materials (beyond merely reproducing similar effects with chemistry) was elusive because of the scales involved.  To shamelessly quote Wikipedia “The periodicity of the photonic crystal structure must be around half the wavelength of the electromagnetic waves to be diffracted. This is ~350 nm (blue) to ~650 nm (red) for photonic crystals that operate in the visible part of the spectrum.”  For comparison, a human hair is about 100,000 nanometers thick.

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The actual physics of photonic crystals are beyond my ability to elucidate (here is a link to a somewhat comprehensible lay explanation for you physicists out there), however, this article is more to let me explain at a sub-rudimentary level and to show a bunch of pictures of the lovely instances of photonic crystals in the natural world. Enjoy these pictures which I stole!

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But, in the mean time don’t forget about the photonic crystals! When we get back to talking about the symbiosis of the giant clams, we will also return to photonic crystals!  I have talked about how ecology is complicated.  Even a symbiotic organism made up of two constituent organisms makes use of nanostructures we are only beginning to comprehend (“we” meaning molecular engineers and materials physicists not necessarily we meaning all of us). imagine how complex it becomes when there are more than one sort of organism interacting in complex ways in the real world!

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This post is a week overdue, and in our weird funhouse media environment, that might as well be eternity (I suppose I should really be writing about Burt Reynold’s death now…and maybe in a way I am). Yet the larger ramifications of this eulogy are bigger than just one moment, and since none of our leaders said quite the right thing, we have to piece meaning together on our own as the wreaths wither and the pomp dissipates.

Like a lot of American, I have been thinking about John McCain’s funeral and the legacy of one of the most eminent national leaders of our era.  My feelings about McCain’ politics are complicated and are undergoing revision (indeed, my feelings about America’s “great era” during the second half of the twentieth century are likewise complex and undergoing change).

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But this post isn’t about politics as such. As is traditional for a funeral piece, it is about larger issues of character and value.

During the horrible 2016 presidential campaign, Donald Trump famously cast aspersions on John McCain by saying “He’s not a war hero…He was a war hero because he was captured? I like people who weren’t captured.” The implication was that McCain was some sort of loser–one of the ultimate insults in Trump’s big book of putdowns (which the swindler apparently has held onto since primary school).  I stand against Trump and the dangerous poisons he has injected wholesale into our political system, yet his imputations against McCain are worth examining…for McCain’s life was indeed deeply shaped by loss.

McCain was born into the shiny luster of deep brass: his father and his grandfather were both admirals in the U.S. Navy and it was always clear his life too would follow a path of naval service and leadership.  But that path often veered into strange and horrible territory of loss and failure, to wit:

He lost his freedom during a disastrous war which we lost.

He lost years of his life to torture, deprivation, and cruel mind games.

He lost the Republican primary in 2000 (possibly due to dirty tricks) and he lost the presidency itself in 2008.

He lost his political party to Trumpism (although whenever Trump’s runaway train finally blows up, whatever Republicans are left, if any, will cravenly say that they always were always McCain style mavericks who were never fully with the Donald).

He lost a battle with cancer and he lost his life.

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Yet McCain’s life was not defined by these losses.  He kept stepping around them and he kept on swinging to the end.  McCain never gave up.  He kept on trying even despite mistakes, setbacks, or naked misfortune.  If we told young John McCain in the Hanoi Hilton that he would survive and become a wild success–titanically rich, internationally known, and one of the great legislators of his day—he might have doubted us, but, clearly, he kept grasping forward despite pain and despair.  The Navy’s (seldom used) motto is “Semper Fortis” which can be alternately translated as “Always Courageous” or “Always Powerful”.  These different interpretations can have different…or even opposite meanings, but McCain tended to prefer the former even when it was at the expense of the latter.

One of the most pernicious forces in life is loss aversion which Wikipedia defines as the “tendency to prefer avoiding losses to acquiring equivalent gains.”  Loss aversion makes people value things incorrectly. The fear of losing one’s crummy medical care makes one avoid taking steps which would provide better medical coverage.  The fear of losing one’s dead-end job makes it hard to conceive us the endless possibilities for meaning and success. The fear of losing national prestige leads us down a paranoid and brutish path which self-evidently forfeits moral leadership.

Undue fear of loss is undue FEAR, or, to be blunt: people who are excessively afraid of losing things become cowards, and cowards do stupid, crazy things.

We have all lost things in life…things which haunt us. Lately we have lost things as a nation too.  Most disastrously we have lost our ability to stand up for honor and fairness even if it hurts us in the short term.  If we let this haunting fear creep into our hearts we will lose more things: our hard-won social gains, the great scientific discoveries of tomorrow, international prestige and the inestimable (albeit imperfect) boon of Pax Americana.  We could even lose our democracy, and end up with a thing that is called a republic but which is not truly a government representative of the people’s wishes.

John McCain is gone. We have lost him (and I suspect even his detractors and opponents are already starting to feel that loss), but we can honor him in the way that he would appreciate best.  We can learn from our losses and then put them behind us without letting them change who we really are or make us afraid to do what is right. That would be a true legacy, towering above a name on some building or highway.  America claims to be the Home of the Brave.  In his best moments, John McCain was indisputably brave. Let us all partake of this inheritance and try to be braver.

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Like a lot of people, I have a dayjob which does not necessarily play to my greatest strengths.  That is good on normal days: when I get out of the office I am ready to write about Goths in space or technicolor trees and then sculpt representations of meaningful tricolor flatfish.  It is less good on days when the sink is hopelessly clogged at home and there are administrative chores related to technical or monetary aspects of life which must be addressed.  Then the whole day becomes pointless dirty drudgery with no respite.  All of which is to say, i ran out of time to write about science and art, so I am going to show some flounder drawings which i made on the train.  Above is a very colorful flounder with a dinosaur, a hotdog, a walking alien machine, and a strange angel.  I would have loved it so much as a child.  As an adult though, I like the elongated walrus best.

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The second small flounder is a more traditional flounder living in the ocean with a dancing prawn and a pale squid (the little mollusk must be frightened).  Although this drawing lacks some of the more fantastical and surreal elements which stand out in other works from this series, its high contrast white on black linework does make it pop out.  We’ll return to regular programming tomorrow.  Wish me luck fixing my sink!

 

 

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I am glad I had some time off for Labor Day, but the horrendously sad fire at Brazil’s national museum (which destroyed the irreplaceable treasures of that enormous nation) and the continued dumpster fire of incompetence and corruption in Washington sort of make me feel like I shouldn’t write about a happy subject.  Therefore, I am going to link to a very profound article in The Atlantic by Annie Lowrey…about the business and economics of small chicken farms!

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When I say small…I mean “small business”: these are the nightmarish factory farms you read about with tens (or hundreds of?) thousands of chickens stuffed into tiny spaces.  Although the factory farms are locally owned by individual farmers with small staffs they receive the chicks from enormous international poultry companies and sell them back ready for market.  These chicken contractors receive subsidies meant for small farmers, but they are really appendages of huge monopolistic food cartels which are generally the only buyer the chicken rancher can count on.   The small farmer assumes the financial (and legal) risk for running a dangerously skinflint and ethically dubious operation.  He is constrained at every turn by binding contracts, extensive rules, and the threat that the giant business will not buy from him or will otherwise dump him.  Then he sells at slim, slim margins to a single customer (single payer systems can seriously curtail prices, as any WalMart supplier could tell you).

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You can read the article to get all of the details, but the picture which emerges is of a world where huge corporate cartels collude to fix prices for their buyers and then likewise collude to make sure their suppliers take all of the risks.     The article also presents a counter-statement from the monolithic food cartels.  Needless to say, the big corporations do not present themselves as terrifying monopolies which are fixing prices and asphyxiating all competitors as they torture and pollute. Yet the mealymouthed platitudes of their corporate mouthpieces do not much convince the reader that the poultry titans (Purdue, Tysons, et al.)  are anything other than rent-seeking cartels operating beyond the law.  The article also suggests that this situation is quickly becoming the norm beyond chickens…in every other walk of economic life.

The take-away from this troubling story of America’s chattel chicken farmers is the same take-away from a deep dive into almost any large industry: this nation’s big businesses are completely out of control.  We need the ghost of Teddy Roosevelt to come back and lop off some heads and cut some of these fat strutting capons into quarters.

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Something I have wanted to write about for a long time is the uncanny way in which human societies are analogous to ecosystems.  Furthermore, the roles within these societies grow and change and wink out—just like species in different ecosystems do–and yet they hew to certain broad generalized templates over time. This seems so self-evident to me that almost doesn’t need to be talked about, and yet when I do talk about it, I realize that it is difficult to explain comprehensively.

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There are many ecosystems—like rainforest, arid scrubland, deep ocean bottom, steppe, or coral reef.  The creatures in these ecosystems are designed by long, long generations of competition and gradual mutation to use the resources of the ecosystem to survive.  Thus a sea anemone eats plankton that the current wafts into its tentacles…and then a clownfish evolves to live protected in the stinging tentacles and look after the anemone…and then a sea turtle evolves which eats anemones and so on.  The larger ecosystems are connected too.  For example, the pelagic ocean depths engender huge quantities of plankton which wafts onto the reef.

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There are many niches in ecosystems—like arboreal fruit gatherer, lurking swamp predator, or planktonic browser.  Convergent evolution causes the shapes of creatures adapted to these roles to take on many similar characteristics:  thus arboreal fruit eaters (whether they be iguanas, tarsiers, or cockatoos) have cunning grips, small agile bodies for precise balance, & acute depth perception; planktonic browsers have huge mouths, filter membranes/apparatuses, and a shape build to conserve energy; and reef building organisms are sessile with grabby arms and a calcium carbonate skeleton they can retreat into (even if they are not corals).

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Of course there are always generalists like raccoons or rats or pigeons which have a number of useful traits that allow them to flourish in a city, a field, or a forest, or wherever…but truly complicated ecosystems engender flamboyant specialists like frogs that live in bromeliads or saber hummingbirds with beaks longer than the rest of the bird’s body.

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A jungle might support a few tribes of generalized hunter gatherers (who literally live off the rainforest in the manner of jaguars and toucans), but humans build our own jungles which we call cities.  In the city there are niches for jaguar people who take what they want and for toucan people who are colorful and pick fruit from the tops of trees that others can’t even get to.  Let’s imagine them respectively as business magnates and art curators. Resources are plentiful in cities.  They arrive in raw forms from other places like farms, mines, or forests and then are processed and synthesized by the city which creates secondary and tertiary tiers of specialists who live off of individual refinement steps which might not even exist elsewhere.

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A farm town might have farmers, millers, bakers, bailiffs, carters, and a few thieves, as well as a single baron and a mayor. The city has grain merchants, food factory workers, pastry chefs, bicycle police, teamsters, catburglars, legions of dukes, and a whole vast city hall bureaucracy (and all the other roles in between).

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As the niche change through time so to the roles change, but there are underlying similarities. Farriers, lectors, and lamplighters have died away but we now need mechanics, voiceover actors, and electric engineers. Some jobs, like bricklayer or toymaker endure for thousands of years.  Some, like wartime airplane detector exist only for a particular moment in time (after airplanes but before radar).

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If you look at society from a distance you can see how technological and social changes mirror the changes of evolution. Cartwrights generally are replaced by automakers (although there were probably not may individuals who made that career change).  Indeed, our manufactured objects themselves illustrate this change (as you can see by looking at a history book of cars and watching fins and fenders grow and shrink, even as the overall cars become lighter, faster, and safer).

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Just as the natural world is more dynamic, beautiful, and robust when there are may sorts of environment with many different creatures, human society is more prosperous when it has lots of different sorts of settings including places of enormous diversity with all sorts of specialized roles.  The interchange is complicated in the human world.  How many theatrical make-up artists can Iowa support? Yet the collagen in the makeup came from Iowa farms…and perhaps the makeup artist herself (and maybe the actors she works on too) originally came to Broadway from little towns in the corn belt.

This metaphor is useful in looking at the arc of history (which is really hard to comprehend from a human-length temporal perspective).  Additionally, it ties the world of natural history/paleontology together into a seamless narrative with the world of history/sociology (we will get back to this in later posts).  It becomes easier to see how thoroughly we humans are part of the natural world—we are sophisticated colony primates not some aberration from outside biology (or clockwork children made by a crazy god). Beyond these vast perspectives of deep time, biology, and macro-economics, however, it is useful to look at society as interlocking ecosystems because it reminds us to be more careful of one another since we need one another.

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There can be no city without the countryside! And who would farmers sell their barley to without cities? (and where would rural hospitals get doctors or malls get new fashions)?  Likewise the farmland needs the forest. The fishing village needs the ocean. In this red-blue era where people from the country and the city apparently despise each other (!) we need to recall it is a false distinction. Everyone needs each other.  The world is a web.  If you touch one thread the whole thing vibrates. And it is changing so fast that we little spiders and flies must also change so swiftly that it is barely possible to figure out who is preying upon whom anymore.  We will come back to this concept, but right now take a look around you and squint.  If the clerks, and stockbrokers and stockboys don’t start to seem more like termites and tigers and tapirs…if the dairymaids and cows don’t seem like ants and caryatids, well let me know. I’ll write it all down a different way.  But I will be surprised if you don’t see it.

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Here is a link to a project by my long-time friend Josh Hoisington.  Josh has been working in the music industry for years and he has always been on the edge of blowing up (in the sense of succeeding enormously, not of exploding: although sometimes it is hard to tell the difference with popular musicians).  His newest musical project takes on the task of the English metaphysical poets: to explore our relationship with God and morality through the intensely personal language of romance and the sensual and trancelike electronic music of dance clubs (this is not as quixotic a task as it may sound…just ask the Sufis who believe that dreamlike music, otherworldly dancing, and exploration of our relationship with Allah all go together like a single calligraphic symbol).

The refrain “My dialogue may not with God, but it’s with myself…” certainly reflects a theme which Ferrebeekeeper has been meaning to return to: that deities are the ultimate metaphor for self.  Let me know your impressions and I will pass them on the musicians.

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