Palomino-Flatfish

Mustang Sole (Wayne Ferrebee, 2017) Wood and Mixed Media

I got wrapped up working on a strange allegorical fish sculpture and failed to write a post today, so here is a sculpture which I built a few years ago which captures the wild freedom of the west (in, um, the form of a sleek predatory pleuronectiform).  The wheels, the running horse, and the fish all connote mobility and streamlined speed.  The mustang is emblematic of North America, but horses were actually introduced to the continent by Spaniards in the early 16th century.  Equids actually originated in the Americas (back in the Eocene, of course) but through the vicissitudes of continental drift, land bridges, speciation, and extinction they died out here and became quintessential Eurasian animals (we’re not even going to talk about zebras).  My favorite parts of this sculpture are the bend wooden components (which were a pain to steam and glue) and the 1970s rainbow of caramel, cream, and gold colors.  it is one of my favorite fish sculptures…but I am still trying to figure out exactly what it means.

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Portrait of Kubaba (8th century B.C.) Carved Basalt

Kubaba of Kish is the only woman ruler listed on the Sumerian King List (which is exactly what it sounds like– a list of ancient kings of Mesopotamian city states).  According to the king list she ruled Kish in the Third Dynasty period (ca. 2500-2330 BC) and was originally a brewer/tavern keeper.  One wonders how she rose from alewife to queen, but politics has always featured surprising vicissitudes, and beer had a central sacred place in ancient Mesopotamia anyway.

We know all too little about the history of Kubaba the ruler (although surprising new texts from the dawn of civilization sometimes come to light), however we know slightly more about Kubaba the goddess!  Apparently she was successful enough that shrines to her began spreading throughout the fertile crescent and, by the late Hurrian/early Hittite period, worship of Kubaba became widespread (this is the era which that splendid basalt sculpture above is from).

Kubaba the Goddess wears a a cylindrical headdress like the polos (albeit with some fancy flowers, braids, and strange hooks).  She holds a pod which scandalized Victorian anthropologists sometimes identified as a pomegranate, but which we can probably safely say is an opium poppy. Some strange fertility and astrological signs drift around her head, but she maintains the stern clear-eyed visage which one might expect from a true pioneer of women in power (or from a hard-headed tavern keeper).

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Behold! This is Triodon macropterus, the majestic Threetooth puffer.  It is the only living species within in the genus Triodon and the family Triodontidae.  The Threetooth puffer grown to slightly longer than half a meter (about 20 inches) and it lives in deep pelagic waters of the Indo-Pacific from Madagascar to French Polynesia.

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The three-tooth puffer is a strange fish with a body deeper than it is long, thanks to an enormous inflatable belly flap. This flap has a giant false eye spot on each side, and, when it is inflated with seawater, the fish’s pelvis descends at an angle, giving the impression of a giant terrifying sea monster head emerging from the deeps.

Although the fish is now taxonomically isolated in its own family(!) it has a robust paleontological history and fossils of extinct genera have been found dating back the Eocene when they must have flourished in the vast warm seas which covered so much of the world in that iceless epoch.   Although they are so rare today, that it is hard to speak of their habits and biology, perhaps the three-spot puffer has a bright outlook in the warm acidic oceans which seem to lie in the world’s future. It could be that the genetic bottleneck will expand as pockets of Triodons speciate to live in yet unknown ecosystems.  Or more-likely humankind’s abuse of the oceans will destroy this last branch of a once-robust taxonomical tree.

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I haven’t written about last week–which was about the most miserable week which American democracy has endured since 2016 (or maybe since the 1960s…or the 1930s).  Like most good-hearted people, I have been feeling quite depressed about the sordid Senatorial acquittal of our very-obviously-criminal president…and about said criminal president’s ridiculous State of the Union speech…and about the disastrous Iowa caucuses…and about the reprisals and threats against witnesses and career civil servants coming from the White House (and its lapdog GOP)…and about, sigh, about the galloping authoritarian rot which is destroying the nation.  The only way to stop the gangrene in our political body is to cut off the afflicted parts (ahem, any GOP politician other than Mitt Romney) by sweeping the bounders, liars, traitors, thieves, and enablers of the Republican Party out of office in November’s election.

Which brings us to the subject of today’s post: this troubling article which is worth reading in its entirety at The Week.  To quickly summarize, the author believes that Bernie Sanders is unelectable because greedy Wall Street bankers dislike him.  However even if he (Sanders) were somehow elected and Democrats also swept both houses of the legislature, still nothing would change.  The fact that Sanders is doing well in the primaries and yet the market has not crashed proves this point!  It is sort of a peculiar and vacuous argument, yet it makes me furious.  The author asks whether successful business lords and fiance moguls are worried about the possibility of a Sanders presidency upsetting their cozy financial plantation and he answers:

…that’s not how Big Money sees things playing out. “A whopping 80-90 percent of participants at our client conferences thought that President Trump would win re-election in November,” Goldman Sachs noted in a recent report. With the unemployment rate at a half-century low and economic confidence at a 20-year high, it seems inconceivable to many investors that voters wouldn’t return Trump to office. For this crowd, prediction markets are as important, if not more so, than polling. And they show Trump as the favorite over the Democrats, with the exception of Mike Bloomberg.

The author is from the American Enterprise Institute (a right-wing economic think tank) and therefore he doesn’t believe in democracy unless it is a rubber stamp for some elaborate rent-seeking project from his paymasters in high finance.  I was going to excoriate him more about cultural and foreign affairs issues, but he seems indifferent to such things, and mostly concentrates on economic policy. In fact, in many ways he and I have disturbingly similar points of view: we believe that the nation’s largest problem is underinvestment in research and infrastucture.  We are both technophiles. He is even an enthusiatic supporter of space exploration!

But there the similarities end. Pethokoukis believes that medical care should cost as much (and be as ineffectual) as possible.  He believes that monopolies should run rampant and unchecked.  He believes that white collar crime should go unpunished and giant multinational companies should not be regulated by the government. In short he is a pro-business enthusiast of the status quo.

So why does this silly short article make me so angry?

I have some friends in the Wall Street world, and after they have had a few drinks, they confide that a shocking number of their fellow finance titans and hedge fund folks support Donald Trump at the ballot box (and with huge donations).  These are not under-educated people who have been dazzled by the bits of Hollywood tinsel or false piety which Trump wears as a costume (albeit a costume which is even less believable than that awful fake tan ).  They fully understand the President’s incompetence, ignorance, corruption, and racism.  They also can see the damage that this fascist dolt is doing to the nation’s well being and future prospects.  Yet they simply don’t care.  Since they are getting such astronomical kickbacks…er tax cuts, the idea of the degradation or collapse of the United States doesn’t bother them:  they will simply fly off to Zurich in their helicopters and private jets. They are willing to pay to keep Donald Trump in place even though they know he is extremely detrimental to society.

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So what the author doesn’t quite say openly is that Wall Street IS Donald Trump. They have the same interests: (1) making as much money as possible through any means; and (2) ensuring that they “win” no matter what the cost to other people or the world.  The market makers don’t really care about the long term, or the medium term, or anything at all other than their bank balance in the immediate present. They don’t even care about the free market–it is “free” only in name and is really a done deal where the winners have already been chosen by collusion, insider deals, and price-fixing.

I simply have no idea about whether Sanders can win either the Democratic nomination or the presidency.  I don’t agree with everything he supports, but he is earnest, hard-working, and concerned about the serious degradation of our nation which has happened during the last few decades.  His sympathy for the working class is not a sham, like Trump’s pretend love for coal miners, factory workers and farmers (although I worry that Trump somehow intuits how to communicate with wage-slaves better than Sanders does). One would think that such things will appeal to anyone not wearing political blinders but our ongoing political crisis is making it difficult to predict or even understand how voters (or anyone) will react to things.  Also, everyone older than I am remembers communists and socialists as despised national enemies.  We will get back to Sanders in future posts.  I don’t think he is the real subject of Pethokoukis’s article.  The real premise is that the market (and market makers) are infallible.

So what truly infuriates me about this article is its smug faith in a free market which doesn’t exist.  Pethokoukis pretends the market is all-knowing (and that it has completely dismissed Sanders before he has even secured the nomination!) but what he is really writing about is a cabal among the management elite who control the system grasp for short-term profit.  Of course such people are fine with Donald Trump (just as the latter is unable to see how extorting foreign aid to win the election is problematic).  It is maddening!  The people who have subalterned free competition,  smugly assure us that everything is very fair, unless someone with different ideas has any chance of winning.  then they threaten to upend the system and destroy everything.  I guess this article strikes me as the real Wall Street response to the the impeachment debacle. Yes Trump is as guilty as possible but that is fine because it benefits us personally.  Just as the Senate’s terrible impeachment acquittal vote left American voters as prey to dark money and foreign interference, Pethokoukis attitude leaves small investors at the mercy of finance titans who can and will punish us if they aren’t guaranteed carte blanche to do exactly as they like.

 

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One of Ferrebeekeeper’s most popular posts of all time was a short essay on the kingly crowns of ancient Egypt: the hedjet, the ancient white (vulture) crown of upper Egypt; the deshret, the red (bumblebee) crown of fertile lower Egypt; and the khepresh, the blue battle crown worn by the pharaoh when he mounted his war chariot to smite the kingdom’s enemies in person!  Immediately below are some little refresher pictures to show these three crowns (plus, if you want to know more about them, you could always read the original article).

This is already a lot of crowns, especially considering that the three were combined in various ways (and mixed with various other royal regalia) for sundry ceremonial purposes–and yet there were other crowns in ancient Egypt worn by beings even more important than the pharaoh.  Today’s post concerns a prime example–the “atef”, the ostrich crown of Osiris.  In the mythology of ancient Egypt, Osiris played a central role as the first pharaoh, the king of the underworld and the lord of death, rebirth, agriculture, and mummification.   His all-important story (death at the hands of his wicked brother and reincarnation thanks to his loving wife) was the central myth of ancient Egypt, which informed people about the afterlife.  As a pharaoh and the eternal ruler of the underworld, Osiris wore a kingly crown, but the underworld is neither upper nor lower Egypt (nor is it a battle as such) and so the atef crown of Osiris is a whole different crown–a knobbed version of the white hedjet of upper Egypt with symbolic rainbow ostrich feathers rising around it.  There is a schematic digital representation of the atef at the top of the post, and here is a 3300 year old painting of it:

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Osiris portrayed on a wall frieze from the tomb of Nefertari (c. 1295-1255 B.C.)

The two ostrich feathers respectively symbolized truth and justice (the nearly identical feather of Maat is one of the most important religious symbols of Egypt–with a nearly identical meaning).  The bulbous central crown was sometimes pictured as a classic white hedjet (as in the image from Nefertari’s tomb above) and sometimes portrayed as a rainbow hedjet surmounted by an astrological-looking cardioid of gold and midnight blue (as in the crown Osiris wears below).

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“Wow” you are probably thinking.  “There were so many crowns in ancient Egypt! Were there still more?”  Of course there were!  However the answers start getting murkier as we move to other rulers (and other crowns).  Come back to Ferrebeekeeper to find out more (or, you know, Google it, and find out all you can bear to know.

 

 

 

 

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The medieval architecture of France includes many of the most renowned examples of Gothic architecture. Thus you are probably asking  yourself, “Were the French a part of the Gothic revival architecture movement of the 19th century?”

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The answer is Oui! Boy were they ever! This is the Chapelle royale de Dreux, the burial place of important members of the House of Bourbon-Orléans (the royal family of France after the revolution).  Its story is interesting.  During the French Revolution, an enraged mob burst desecrated the family chapel of the Duke of Orléans and threw all of the corpses which had been therein interred into a common mass grave at the the Chanoines cemetery of the Collégiale Saint Étienne.  After the revolution was over, the Duke’s daughter arranged for a grand chapel to be built over this new burial site.  Later on, when her son Louis Philippe became King of France, he added substantially to the grand new building which was built to mimic the great ancient structures lost to the revolution.  As a bonus, Alexandre Brogniart, the director of manufacturing for Sèvres porcelain, used his resources to produce huge fired enamel paintings on large panes of glass to go in the chapel.

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Before we resume our normally scheduled program, let’s pause for a bittersweet farewell to the Spitzer Infrared Space telescope, one of the most remarkable scientific tools ever put into operation.  In 2003 the telescope was launched from Cape Canaveral aboard a Delta II rocket.  It was sent into a heliocentric orbit rather than a geocentric orbit–following Earth rather than orbiting around it in order to minimize heat interference from our home planet.  When the telescope ran out of liquid helium coolant in 2009 most of its instruments and modules became unusable (since the main mirrors required a frosty -459 degrees Fahrenheit temperature to operate).  However, some of its most important discoveries came during the “warm phase” of operation between 2009 and January 30, 2020 (when mission scientists turned off the telescope).  For example it found and observed the seven world Trappist1 system which Ferrebeekeeper was so very enamored of back in 2017.

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Spitzer has provided enormous treasure troves of data concerning the formation of planets and galaxies (particularly back during the peak star-formation era ten billion years ago).  It has also afforded humankind an in-depth look at non-luminous objects like comets, asteroids, and vast clouds of dust and gas between the stars.

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Although astronomers are sad to see the mission end, they are excited by the prospects of Spitzer’s replacement.  Spitzer had a main mirror which was a bit smaller than a meter (33 inches).  The upcoming Webb telescope will have a 6.5 meter (21-foot) mirror (if we ever manage to launch it).  Goodbye to the little telescope that could…but prepare for great things in the near future!

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Ok…there is one last rat post for our musophobic friends to suffer through, and, after that, they can peacefully enjoy the rest of the year (ummm….of the rat).  Yesterday, during the Superbowl there was a delirious moment of joy, when I thought my post today would be truly timely and appropriate, since I saw that the Kansas City Chiefs mascot was a giant rat! (presumably since whatever appalling Chief Wahoo-style mascot they used to have got ushered into sudden retirement before the franchise hit the national stage).  Alas, it turns out that KC Wolf (pictured above) is actually a wolf.  I don’t know how I got the wrong idea about his identity.  It does bring us to the issue of rat mascots though.

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Scabby the Rat (different sizes for different strikes!)

I assumed that despite the fear and alarm engendered by rats there would be some prominent sports franchises and events that adopted the rat as a mascot (since rats are universally known, if not necessarily universally loved.  Alas, how wrong I was–the biggest rat mascot I could find (both in terms of popularity and literally in terms of size) was “Scabby the Rat” an inflatable labor union prop who comes out whenever a picket line goes up.   The other rats, in a big anonymous amalgamated lump are below.

I don’t think any of them are particularly famous.  One or two might even properly be mouse mascots (in which case we could have put Mickey in here and finally gotten famous through the time-honored American rite of being sued by Disney).  They are fun to look at though and they invite reflections on the downright strangeness of mascots.

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There is however one culturally significant rat, whom I want to call out in this mascot post.  Technically he is not a mascot, but instead a vahana–one of the animal mounts/vehicles ridden by the Hindu gods.  Each of the ranking devas has their own particular animal they ride: Indra has an elephant; Brahma has a swan; fierce Durga rides a tiger; while Parvati rides a lion.  However, in a complete reversal of the western myth, Ganesha, the beautiful and beloved elephant-headed god of wisdom, art, and science rides upon the greater Indian bandicoot rat ((Bandicota indica).  It is open to interpretation why Ganesha chose such an unusual and incongruous beast as his loyal accessory.  Some scholars have suggested that the rat symbolizes Ganesha’s ability to overcome all obstacles, while others have opined that the rat represents Ganesha’s ability to master challenges of the physical world (like rat-induced famine).  Some gurus say that Ganesha’s vahana is more symbolic and represents the great deity’s ability to master thoughts which proliferate in crazy ways like rats in the dark.  Based on our last post, though I wonder if it might evoke Ganesha’s renowned compassion and open-mindedness.  Whatever the case, I hope you enjoy compassion and open-mindedness  throughout this rat year.  I feel like we might all need it! Om and Happy New Year, one last time.

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OK, so our Year of the Rat celebrations have engendered some reader pushback against the maligned rodents, and I can certainly understand that considering some of the unhappy rat/human collaborative efforts from history (like, uhhhh, the bubonic plague or sundry deep famines).  And, likewise, I completely understand how unnerving it can be when a scabrous piece of the subway wall detaches itself from the general gloom and runs over your foot like a gray hell imp (this is particularly demoralizing after being pushed around by New York crowds all week while desperately trying to hold on to a semblance of sanity commuting to and from your meaningless dayjob).

Yet, despite (thousands of years worth) of these bad rat moments, rats are worthy of our respect not because of their enormous worldwide success, nor their astonishing resilience, nor their acute intelligence (although all of those things are true and, indeed, worthy of great respect), but because of something unexpected–their morality and compassion.

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A landmark University of Chicago laboratory experiment from 2011 presented lab rats with a dilemma. A subject rat was given a choice of  helping an unknown fellow rat trapped in a narrow, scary, and uncomfortable plastic tube (which could only be opened by the subject rat nudging a finicky and unpleasant latch), or eating chocolate.  It is worth noting that rats like chocolate as much as we do.  The NIH summarized the experiment results thusly:

To test how much value the rats placed on liberating a trapped cagemate, the scientists presented rats with 2 restrainers — one with a rat inside and another containing 5 chocolate chips, a favorite rat snack. A free rat could choose to eat all the treats himself by opening the chocolate restrainer first or blocking the entrance to the chocolate restrainer. But the researchers found that the free rats opened the restrainers in no consistent order and allowed their liberated cagemates an average of 1.5 chips. When an empty restrainer was paired with a chocolate-containing one, the free rats ate all 5 chocolates.

To summarize: the rats helped the other rats and then shared the chocolate! Here are some full descriptions of the study.  You should read them and run it through in your head.  Maybe imagine if you were caught in something like this with terrifying alien scientists, a rando human stranger, and a satchel with millions of dollars in it. Would you behave as well as the rats?  Would you try to help or would you try to escape the lunatic aliens with the money as fast as possible? Would you free the other human and then take 3.5 million dollars and give them 1.5 million? Really? Reallllly?

No study about the emotions or virtues of animals would be complete without a loud and peevish set of detractors coming forth to claim that the conclusions are misconstrued (or some form of anthropomorphism).  The “only humans have actual feelings and thoughts” crowd assessed the 2011 study and found it lacking because perhaps the subject rat wanted the companionship of the stranger rat trapped in the tube or something.  It seems to me the original study took such concerns into account by creating scenarios in the which the second rat, once freed, was still separated from the subject rat (this did not alter the experiment’s outcome). However, to placate the naysayers, the neural scientists sighed heavily and created an even more harrowing ordeal in which rats had to risk drowning (or so it seemed to them) in order to help a stranger rat who seemed to be drowning. Once again the rats performed with admirable integrity and heroism.  An additional wrinkle was that the rats who had been trapped in the water as the “victim rat” acted more quickly to save their distressed fellows when they were given the role of subject rat.

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To my ears, that sounds like a textbook definition of empathy.  All of this does! Rats have hearts. They are capable of compassion and nobility.  Guanyin also holds rats in her ineffable embrace. As she listens to the cries of the world she hears their horrified squeaks to their families as we trap and poison them.

I confess that such a thought is deeply disquieting to me. I have been guilty of treating rats like vermin.  Yet I have talked to people with pet rats and I am not really surprised.  It has long been obvious to people of good conscience and reasonable observational abilities that almost all mammals (and a distressing number of birds and fish) have rich and soulful emotional lives.  They are not machines made of meat (or not more than we humans are anyway).  They have souls, whatever that means.  Probably a lot of religious people are cursing me to their made-up gods, but I bet most people with pets are biting their lips and thoughtfully nodding.

I don’t know what to do with this knowledge. Our world is a cruel world of savage competition and appetite.  I eat certain mammals and birds.  I live in rat-free dwellings! It’s how I live! It’s what I have always done… yet more and more I worry that I live thoughtlessly in the jeweled master bedroom of a vast palace of cruelty.

But we are not seeking facile and comfortable answers here. We are seeking the truth, and that can be a narrow path of daggers which cut your heart. If you want soothing lies which confirm all of your biased feelings, go become an evangelical [REDACTED]ian.

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uhhhh….

 

 

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Pseudoscience, quackery, “magic”, and deceptive supernatural practices meant to defraud people (often including the practitioner…for our need to believe in things is deep and desperate indeed) are as old as humankind, but I doubt that many schools of augury are quite as outwardly preposterous as myomancy, divination by means of rats and mice.

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The Romans were into augury of every sort, but they seem to have had a particular fondness for myomancy, and Pliny the Elder refers to it directly several times in his histories (although, in the end, all that study of rat augury doesn’t seem to have kept him safe from unexpected volcanic eruptions).  Myomancy could be “practiced” by freeing rats or mice and seeing which way they fled, by watching the rodents navigate mazes/pictograms, or by simply observing their lives in the wild.

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This last “wild” myomancy was perhaps the most highly regarded, yet it was also the most rare and spontaneous.  Mice and rats were sometimes thought to scream out before a disaster…or to just run away before a calamity.   If rats suddenly fled a house or community, it was thought to be bad luck of the most astonishing sort. Likewise. if a huge number of rats or mice simply appeared, it betokened a coming war or illness.  If rodents were spotted gnawing clothing (or, worse, armor or military equipment) it was regarded as a sign of incipient defeat.

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Now, animals perhaps don’t have occult connections to the forces of fate and divinity, but they have extreme sensory acuity (or sometimes they have entire senses we lack!).  Modern scientists have noticed that animals, particularly rats and mice, can predict earthquakes or extreme weather events.  Rats and mice are sensitive to air changes which betoken fire, pollution, or anoxygenic conditions.  Additionally, if a bunch of rats suddenly appear seemingly out of nowhere it is a pretty dire sign that something has gone very wrong with some fundamental link in an ecosystem.  Famine or pestilence may indeed be on the way.  The link between rats and bubonic plague is direct and (now) well known.  If rats start stumbling out of the woodwork and dying, collect all of your strongest antibiotics and RUN.

So I started this post by belittling myomancy, which certainly sounds less august than reading the stars or speaking to the dead or what have you.  However, on closer examination, it seems like myomancy might provide some real and useful information, which other schools of augury lack entirely.  This is not because myomancy is magical, but instead because rats and mice are clever and sensitive and must stay hyper-alert to survive in a world of poisons, predators, giants, and catastrophes.  Pliny the Elder was one of the forefathers of the natural sciences–perhaps we can still learn some things from him (see more next week), so keep an eye out for mysterious rodent happenings.  You never know what they will tell you! If Pliny hadn’t gotten distracted by the giant mushroom cloud above Vesuvius, he probably would have noticed rats running the other way as fast as they could.

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