My grandfather owned a house in the strange & problematic city of Baltimore (which was one of the first urban areas I got to know very well).  One of grandpa’s tenants was an opioid addict.  This guy’s life was inexorably destroyed by debt, communicable disease, and appetite…and the poor soul ultimately went back to wherever he came from. But he left all of his empty aquariums, Apple computer games, and his weird science fiction literature behind.  In due time, these things found their way into my hands, and they were a huge part of growing up. Among the science fiction books were Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation” series where the capital of the old Galactic Empire was the fictional world “Trantor.” Planet Trantor was entirely a city:  the oceans had been drained away into underground cisterns.  The farms were all replaced by administrative buildings.  It was a metal and plastic world of skyscrapers, enormous conference rooms, huge statues, and titanic space co-ops.  On Trantor, there was no more primary sector work…everything was brought to Trantor from other planets. This explains how I first ran into the concept of an ecumenopolis—a planet which is entirely covered in a city—it is a forboding idea which blew my mind as a kid. I have been thinking about a lot lately.


If contemporary English writers need to invent new words, they don’t go back to grub for syllables in ancient guttural Saxon words of earthy doom.  Instead they glue together neologisms from Greek and Latin roots.  This is how we have the word “ecumenopolis”, which literally means universe-city. The word does not come from Athens or Rome, where such a concept was undreamt of.  It is a word from America in 1967, when the world’s planners and scientists began to comprehend that invasive humans were spreading through every ecosystem of a finite Earth.  However the concept came from Asimov—who, in turn, borrowed it from a weird utopian American preacher.  The word was thus coined just before the dawn of the space age, when the finitude of the planet was beginning to become evident.


Lately, this idea came to the masses in the form of planet Coruscant, the administrative world of the much-derided Star Wars prequels.  The best aspect of those movies was staring at the endless lines of spaceships flying between enormous  buildings or taking off from huge engineered megastructures. Coruscant had its own dark glistening beauty yet it was also painful to think about, and whenever the characters went down into the city, the effect was risible. It is hard to capture the cliquish and modish aspects of urban life on film in a way which makes them seem appealing (which is probably why Coruscant got blown to bits by a stupid plot contrivance in the new series).  This illustrates a point too: in fiction, the inhabitants of cities are corrupt and interchangeable (whereas country folks are salt-of-the earth heroes).


We don’t really have any other planets: and if we do they will be hell worlds or ice desert worlds–like Venus and Mars (come to think of it, they will be Venus and Mars).  Those worlds would be lovely ecumenopolises: it isn’t like you were going outside there anyway.  Whereas if Earth’s deserts, reefs, rainforests, elephants, and golden moles are replaced with concrete and billboards it would be a tragedy beyond reckoning (although maybe future children would read about such things in antiquarian blogs).  That is a profoundly sad thought, but it doesn’t mean that things have to be that way.  If we can urbanize well, we can still have space and resources left over for agriculture and for the natural world (while we get our act together and make some synthetic mega habitats elsewhere where everyone can have a gothic mansion and a robot army).


I introduced this post with an anecdote about the city, albeit the city of Baltimore which seems hopelessly tiny and provincial now (to say nothing of how it seems compared with imaginary planet-wide cities).  I want to write a lot more about cities.  The Anthropocene is upon us.  More than half of all human beings now live in a city! Indeed I live in Brooklyn, and I work on Wall Street (don’t worry: I am untainted by the corrupt wealth of global finance because none of it ever reaches my hands). Talking to people I have realized that the story of my grandfather’s tenant is unremarkable: city dwellers know all about such things. Yet the story of my renegade turkeys is unfathomable to most people.


Cities are the natural habitation of humans (well—I guess the margin between forests and grassland in Africa is our natural habitat, but most of us have moved away from there and cities are our new home). The question of whether we can make cities better and find a way to live in greater density in a safe and healthy way is a very pressing one. Or will the entire planet become a horrid strip mall…or worse a sprawling slum.


Let’s talk about cities! We need to build better cities…and some day, an ecumenopolis.  We need to make sure that it is not here though, because that will be a true Apokolips, er…apocalypse.


As we proceed further into the Halloween season, a long dormant specter has unexpectedly emerged from the past to claim another victim.  In the early era of space exploration a shockingly high number of Mars missions were complete failures.  This led space agencies to talk about the “Galactic Ghoul” a malevolent (and wholly imaginary!) entity which devours Mars probes.  Well, actually the phrase “Galactic Ghoul” was coined in the nineties…before that, this high failure rate was attributed to “the Curse of Mars” which isn’t quite as vivid a personification of failure but which still effectively evokes a malevolent supernatural thing out in the darkness between worlds. The ghoul (or curse) was particularly hard on Soviet craft and a shockingly large number of Soviet missions just vanished into the void for no reason as detailed in this dramatic chart (which is worth looking at for all sorts of reasons).


The curse even manifested in the late nineties when NASA screwed up the distinction between matric and non-metric units of measurement and fired the Mars Climate Orbiter straight into the Martian atmosphere where it disintegrated (although that seems like it could be chalked up to a different old nemesis: being bad at math).  At any rate, the ghoul has been quiescent for a while as NASA learned to operate on the red planet (and triple check their numbers).


Today though brings more grim news from the Red Planet. The ESA and the Russian space agency collaborated on ExoMars a joint mission in which the two teams sent an orbiter and a lander to Mars together.  The Trace Gas Orbiter is the real scientific component of the mission.  It will assay Mars for methane sources (we would like to know where the atmospheric methane of Mars comes from since it should be scrubbed from the thin Martian atmosphere faster than it can build up).  The lander was named for Giovanni Schiaparelli, the 19th-century Italian astronomer who popularized the idea of Martian canals (a concept long since disproven but bearing elements of truth).


 Schiaparelli’s only scientific payload was a small weather station that would have run for a few days before running out of batteries.  It was really a lander designed to test out Martian landing capabilities, however, as of press time, the lander had proceeded into the Martian gravity well and then went ominously and completely silent.  Is the galactic ghoul now sated or will it need to feed on the next charismatic lander headed to the red planet?  Elon Musk may want to do some animal sacrifice and appeasement dances before he launches his colony ship!



OK, some days, after a long day at work, I am a bit uninspired, but you know who never runs out of endless inventiveness? Nature!  So today, as a run up for next week’s Halloween week of creepy art, here is a gallery of natural expressionism—nudibranch mollusks—some of the most vibrant and exquisitely colored animals in all of the world (you can look at an earlier Ferrebeekeeper gallery of nudibranchs here).





Now poisonous strange sea slugs are pretty creepy and seasonally appropriate, but to keep this filler post truly Halloween appropriate I have selected all orange, and black, or orange & black slugs (with maybe a fab or purple and white and green here and there).  Behold the glory:


Nudibranch, Nembrotha guttata 5759.jpgd7187f6d8322ff26b02289364b7fc58c.jpg


Aren’t they beautiful! Sometimes I wish I was a toxic gastropod that looked like Liberace and lived in a tropical sea…but alas, like so many of nature’s greatest works, they are vanishing as the oceans change.

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In the popular imagination, marsupials are synonymous with Australia.  Yet, once, in the age of Gondwanaland, Australia was linked to Antarctica (then a verdant land of forests) which was linked to South America.  The marsupials have been a big part of South America’s ecosystems for a long time, but, ever since the place was overrun with placental mammals, they have kept a fairly low profile.  Today’s Ferrebeekeeper post features a tremendously widespread and common marsupial from South America—yet this creature is nearly unknown beyond South America (except perhaps to mammalian zoologists and people who write alphabetical lists of beasts).  The water opossum (Chironectes minimus), also known as the yapok, is the most aquatic living marsupial and the only living marsupial where both sexes have pouches.


The yapok is a formidable predator of fish, amphibians, snakes, and freshwater invertebrates like crayfish.  In order to pursue these creatures underwater, it has symmetrical webbed back feet, short waterproof fur, and numerous sensory facial bristles (like a catfish! which it slightly resembles).  The possums are small– 30 centimeters (11 inches) long with a 35 centimeter (14 inch) long tail. They have endearing little masks and cute stripes. Yapoks live from southern Mexico down through Central America to Southern Brazil.  They are especially prevalent in Colombia and Northern Peru, but they do not live in most of the Amazon Basin.



Perhaps the most remarkable thing about yapoks is the female’s pouch.  While the mother yapok is taking care of her young, she still must swim and hunt—yet marsupial babies have a lot of development to do before they can be on their own (much less swim through swift streams hunting fish).  Adult female yapoks therefore have a watertight pouch which can be sealed with a muscular ring so that they can take their offspring with them in the water.  For 50 days she carries her brood of 1-5 little yapoks with her everywhere…and even after then, when they detach from the nipple, they still frequent her pouch.


Of course, as I noted above, male yapoks have pouches too. Wikipedia blandly notes, “The male also has a pouch (although not as watertight as the female’s), where he places his genitalia before swimming. This is thought to prevent it from becoming tangled in aquatic vegetation and is probably helpful in streamlining the animal as well.”  My mind keeps approaching this concept and then reeling back from it.  So I will just leave Wikipedia’s wording as it stands and say no more.


Condolences to the people of Thailand. Today (October 13, 2016) we bid farewell to world’s longest reigning king, Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand, also known as Rama IX.  Born in 1927 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Bhumibol became king in June of 1946 and has continuously reigned since then.


Ferrebeekeeper blogged about the king of Thailand before.  He was the richest and most powerful monarch in the world (with the possible exceptions of the king of Saudi Arabia or Vladimir Putin).  His subjects treated him as a living bodhisattva or god and he lived in vast palaces and rode on huge golden dragon barges. To a citizen of a Republic, it seems obscene for one man to personally control so much of a kingdom’s wealth (although frankly America has been falling short on our own austere Republican virtues these days).  It is strange to think that all of this power and wealth was going to go to Bhumibol’s brother, King Ananda Mahidol —before Ananda was murdered by being shot in the forehead. Fortunately a privy court hanged some random low-status servants after a shabby show trial—thus laying any questions about the exceedingly mysterious events to rest forever.


King Bhumibol was a very loyal friend to America for 7 decades.  It startles me how swiftly the Cold War is passing from everyone’s memories, but Bhumibol helped the Western Democracies to win it.  His intelligence, forbearance, and natural political savvy helped Thailand stabilize South East Asia and prevent communism from spreading there (it also made Thailand the preeminent regional power). Bhumibol, a constitutional monarch eschewed direct levers of power. He was tremendously beloved by his subjects, which has always been difficult for a leader and is even more difficult in today’s wired world..  People who met him praised him as warm and sincere.


Rereading this obituary I realize it sounds like a backhanded compliment.  It isn’t meant to be.  The papers today are full of claptrap which obscure Bhomibal’s political skill, his adroit ability to run Thailand from the shadows while ministers and generals came and went, and–above all–his iron will. He will truly be missed.  It will be majestic to see the Great Crown of Victory come out of its vault so that the playboy Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn can set it upon his own brow (for nobody else has sufficient status to grant the throne of Thailand to him) and become the new king. However it is sad to bid farewell to such a stalwart ally, gifted political player, and interesting man.  It also raises worries about the stability of Thailand once a period of national mourning has passed.


OK, I’m not going to sugarcoat it, my idea for today’s blog post did not work out.  I was going to write about Gothic mascots—a perfectly serviceable mashup of two favorite Ferrebeekeeper tags—but, when I got home from work and started researching gothic mascots the pickings turned out to be exceedingly slim—a Simpsons gag (the Montreal vampire), a bunch of troubling Lolita cartoons, and those godawful “Capital One” barbarians who are trying to sell you some sort of credit card (are they even Visigoths? Is “Capital One” even really a real credit card?).  Apparently nobody wants any sort of gothic mascots except for predatory lenders.


Oh no!–what if Capital One destroys my credit rating for making fun of them? [collapses laughing]

So I ended up looking with increasing desperation at past mascots for anything of any interest and this line of inquiry lead me back to that Simpson’s joke about the Montreal vampire.  Montreal is a francophone city—beautiful and evocative—yet prone to making choices which are different from the market-driven choices of other places.  What was the mascot of the 1976 Montreal Olympics?  And, Bingo! suddenly I had today’s blog post.


This is Amik the beaver.  Amik means beaver in Algonquin—so this character (which looks like it was designed by somebody who just spilled an entire bottle of India ink) is really named “Beaver the beaver.” Anik appears with a red stripe with the Montreal Games logo on it or sometimes with a pre (?) pride rainbow strip.


I am making fun of poor Anik because I don’t think beavers lack faces.  Nor are they the unsettling pure black of absolute oblivion.  Maybe I found my Gothic mascot after all—in the most unlikely of places—Montreal, 1976!  I will write a better post tomorrow. In the meantime enjoy the strange juxtaposition of nihilism and naivete which was seventies design.


There is a lot to talk about lately: this dreadful never-ending election, spooky Halloween subjects, the president’s laudable plan to land humans on Mars, the fact that the Olympics have completely moved to East Asia….but, for the moment, let’s ignore all of that to talk about a ghastly dark snowball the size of Iowa.  I am not talking about any old snowball, I am talking about 2014 UZ224, a dwarf planet which was recently discovered by an astronomy team at the University of Michigan.


2014 UZ224 has a diameter of about 530 kilometers (330 miles): it is about half the size of Pluto.  Perhaps it is not even a true dwarf planet—but what else should we call it.  Located deep in the Oort Cloud, the little world is 14 billion kilometers (8.5 billion miles) from the sun (which is something like a thousandth of a light year). It takes 1,100 years to complete a single orbit of our star.  There are many of these Oort Belt objects (Ferrebeekeeper has talked about Sedna, Eris, and Haumea before), but it always special to find a new member of the solar system.  Or maybe not…the news of the world barely seemed to note the little iceball at all. I don’t know whether to be pleased at how mundane such discoveries are becoming, or appalled at how blase and jaded we are.  I bet Herschel would still be excited!


This is Las Lajas sanctuary in Colombia.  It was built on a bridge 50 metres (160 ft) tall which crosses the Guáitara River not far from the Ecuador border.  This beautiful sanctuary, a gothic revival mini cathedral, was completed between 1916 and 1949, but previous chapels have existed at the site for a long time.  According to folklore, the Virgin Mary appeared to a woman, Maria Mueces, and her deaf-mute daughter, Rosa, at the site in 1754.  The two were passing by the Guaitara River when a storm broke out.  They sought shelter by a waterfall coming from the canyon wall.  Suddenly Rosa began shouting to her mother that the Virgin was calling to her and the pair witnessed the goddess above the gorge.  Later when Rosa unexpectedly died, Maria went back to the canyon to pray, whereupon her daughter was restored to life.  The modern church also features its own “miracle”: there is a fresco of the Virgin mother behind the altar…and nobody knows who painted it! To an artists, this latter miracle seems a little less like a miracle and more like an improperly executed PR plan. Also look at the Virgin’s enormous crown!





Ferrebeekeeper has written about the giant otter, the largest extant mustelid (which is an alpha-predator of the world’s largest river).  But what about extinct mustelids?  Honey badgers, wolverines, ferrets, and, yes, giant otters, are fearsome animals: was there once a giant honey badger or a huge super-wolverine?


The  Megalictis lived in North America during the Miocene.  It weighed as much as a small black bear—somewhere between 50 and 90 kilograms (100—200 lbs), but it had a body (and presumably a temperament like a wolverine or a badger.  Indeed, the picture I have in my “Prehistoric Mammals” coloring book (thanks, Dover!) makes it look exactly like a giant honey badger.


I wish I could tell you more about Megalictis—where exactly it lived and how.  All we can say is that it was a predator…and not a lurking predator—it caught and subdued its prey by brute strength.  However we do not know why it flourished (although it evolved during the Miocene “cat gap” when North America was low on the most widespread and successful mammalian predator) or what led to its extinction.  Still search the internet and find some honey badger videos—then imagine if they were ten time larger! It is a formidable thought!



October is Ferrebeekeeper’s big month!  In year’s past we have featured special theme weeks on the undead, the flowers of the underworld, the children of echidna, and flaying.  Don’t worry: there is plenty of macabre Halloween material coming up for spooky season this year. In the meantime, to tide you over, here is a winged serpent wearing a crown.  Maybe it escaped from the serpent bearer!

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