mental_slavery

Back during the sixties, a pair of psychologists (Seligman and Maier) at the University of Pennsylvania conducted a sadistic animal study in order to learn more about depression. And they did find out a great deal about depression…and about learning, conditioning, the nature of will, and many other important things. Their experiments were troubling on all sorts of levels. Yet even though thinking about this is painful, we need to do so, because what they learned by torturing dogs into near-catatonic apathy applies very directly to us as well.

OK, here is the basis of the experiment: groups of dogs were placed in restraint harnesses with access to a lever which they could activate with their paws. Group 1 dogs were put in the harness and then nothing happened and they were released…they were the control group I suppose. Group 2 dogs were put in the restraints and given a painful electric shock—which they could stop by pushing the lever. Group 3 dogs were put in restraints and shocked seemingly at random. Group 3 dogs were helpless to escape their predicament: the lever did nothing.

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After sufficient conditioning (I imagine an agent of Hydra saying that phrase in a faux German accent), the dogs were removed from the harnesses and put in a box apparatus with an electric floor. The floor would start shocking the dogs, but they could escape by leaping over a low threshold or finding a hidden panel or what-have-you. Innocent Group 1 dogs were appalled at human perfidy, but quickly found a way out of the electrified box apparatus! Group 2 dogs knew they could change their fate and they too quickly found a way to escape the painful box. They bounded around until they got out. Group 3 dogs, however, had been taught that their actions were meaningless and so their response was heartbreakingly sad: they just lay down on the dreadful electrified floor to take their shocks and whine in misery.

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The researchers discovered that the group 3 dogs were fundamentally broken. They could not be threatened or cajoled to jump over the barrier. Only by literally moving the dog’s limbs in the correct motions and holding the creature upright could the animals be taught to escape the electrified floor (it should be obvious that these dogs were thoroughly conditioned till they were effectively destroyed, and, of course the animals used in this study—and its subsequent iterations—were destroyed after being so relentlessly abused). These studies worked the same way on other animals and in other iterations which you can look up on your own if you so like.

So what did we learn from all this? People (or other similar organisms) who have been subject to abuse and neglect have been taught not to seek a way out of their predicament—even when the way is so obvious as to be self-evident. Frustratingly it seems like those infuriating optimists who are always going around saying “you make your own luck” and “always look on the bright side” and suchlike twaddle are right…sort of. A person’s way of explaining the world to himself matters greatly in how he then tries to deal with that world. What truly matters seems to be perceived control over the situation—or perceived lack of control. Neurophysiologists even discovered the biological circuitry of learned helplessness—mood and learning affect each other in discernible chemical patterns in the brain. The wrong feedback loop can lead to crippling anxiety-related emotional disorders—as seen in the group 3 dogs (interestingly, physical exercise can help break this feedback loop, so if you end up in prison camp, or being tortured by the Viet Cong, or trapped in a hall of evil mirrors, you had better quickly start getting fit!).

 

Plus, if you get buff enough, you could just physically bust free

Plus, if you get buff enough, you could just physically bust free

Of course a philosopher would correctly point out that none of the dogs in any of the three groups ever truly had any control—it was always an illusion fostered by godlike experimenters. In our world of powerful machines, giant corporations, ineluctable plate tectonics, false democracy, and billions upon billions of hungry greedy antagonistic humans, control is likewise an illusion, but a very important one! Maybe I should not even have included this paragraph, so that we can all can pretend we have some modicum of agency in the actual world.

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Speaking of the true nature of the world, the real lesson of the dog study is short and hard. Life is a series of shocking boxes box and we need to keep bounding around banging on the walls all the time to get anywhere. Maybe the way forward is there and maybe not, but you had better believe with all your heart that it is…and that your actions have meaning. Otherwise you might as well just lie down on the floor and die.

Living Willow Structure by Bonnie Gale

Living Willow Structure by Bonnie Gale

I have been looking forward to spring!  So far however the only signs that it is on its way have been some little crocus buds which the squirrels ripped apart.  To remedy this, I have been trying to put up some aspirational gardening posts.  Yet, looking back at yesterday’s post about a ragged poisonous flower, I wonder if I have succeeded.  Therefore, here is a post about a beautiful living garden structure which was created by Bonnie Gale, a garden designer and inventor/innovator who builds unique garden rooms for the great masters of New York.

Living Willow Outdoor Structure

Living Willow Outdoor Structure

When I was a child, I read fantasy novels which featured all sorts of elves and nature spirits.  This structure is made of living willow branches, and very much reminds me of the magical otherworldly feeling evoked by such imaginary nature sprites.  Bundles of living willows are carefully planted in proximity to each other and then methodically trained to entwine together into a single structure—a literal living room.

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These astonishing live pergolas and arbors are amazing, but they look like they not only require sunlight, space, and meticulous building skills, but also prodigious amounts of time and patience.  A mere green thumb would not be enough to craft such a delightful folly: one would have to have green hands.  I have always thought I was more gifted at gardening than other people (at least I get out there and try), but after years my irises still haven’t bloomed!  I don’t anticipate building any living willow rooms of exquisite delight.

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Yet I am thankful to Ms. Gale for creating such things and I look forward to seeing more of her structures in the future!  Additionally, maybe someday the bioengineers will get better at their craft and we can all have extra growing rooms to enjoy.  Right now though I would settle for a single blossom…

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Henbane (Hyoscyamus niger) photo by Robert Seago

Henbane (Hyoscyamus niger) photo by Robert Seago

Here is an interesting and horrifying flower!  This is henbane (Hyoscyamus niger) which also goes by the name “stinking nightshade.”  It is one of the noteworthy poisons of classical antiquity.  Henbane is a member of the Solanaceae family—the nightshades—one of the most important of all plant families to humankind.  The Solanaceae family includes eggplants, tomatoes, peppers, and potatoes, but also nightshade, datura, and tobacco!

Henbane Illustration/diagram

Henbane Illustration/diagram

Henbane too is rich in psychoactive alkaloids.  Small doses result in dilated pupils, restlessness, flushed skin, and hallucinations.  Other symptoms of henbane poisoning include a racing heart, vomiting, extreme body temperature fluctuations, the inability to control one’s muscles, convulsions, coma, and, uh, death, so it’s probably well to steer clear of eating (or touching or taunting) this particular plant.  The ancient Greeks and Romans did not read my blog, so they sometimes ingested henbane.  In particular, Pliny documented its use by fortunetellers. The priestesses of Apollo would take the plant in order that they might fall into a hallucinogenic trance and then pronounce auguries. It should be noted that priestesses of Apollo tended not to last too well.  Henbane also had associations with the world hereafter, and dead souls wandering the margins of the underworld were said to wear henbane laurels.

Two apothecary vessels for storage of Hyoscyamus niger (ca. 19th century) photo by Bullenwächter

Two apothecary vessels for storage of Hyoscyamus niger (ca. 19th century) photo by Bullenwächter

Henbane originated in southern Europe and western Asia, but classical civilization spread it widely across all of Europe (from whence it traveled to the rest of the world). Incompetent medieval pharmacists used it as an anesthetic and for other sundry “medicinal” uses.  It was also popular with poisoners (scholars think it is the most likely candidate to be “hebenon” the poison from Hamlet) and was the means of death for many murders even into contemporary times.  It also has a sad place in the witch panics that affected Europe during the dark ages and the early modern era.  Witches were said to use it in their potions.  Domestic animals would also sometimes eat it accidentally and run wild or perish. Thus witch-hunters would look for the plant and use it as evidence in their trials (although it grows wild as a weed).  Also, because of its powerful psychoactive properties, henbane could well give a user the impression of flying and of various supernatural happenings.

Witches' Sabbath (Hans Baldung Grien, 1510, woodcut)

Witches’ Sabbath (Hans Baldung Grien, 1510, woodcut)

On a more mundane level, brewers used henbane to flavor beer until this was recognized as a bad idea (which occurred much later than you might hope) and it was universally replaced with hops.  Evidence of henbane’s use as a flavoring agent for beer goes all the way back to the Neolithic era.  There is clearly evidence that henbane does something for (to?) humans, but there is even clearer evidence that it is tremendously dangerous and toxic.  Maybe it’s best to appreciate this ancient plant through reading about it and looking at pictures of the strange weedy flowers.

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A Fossa (Cryptoprocta ferox); photo by Keven Law)

A Fossa (Cryptoprocta ferox); photo by Keven Law)

Behold, the fossa (Cryptoprocta ferox), the top predator of Madagascar (exempting, as always, our own very predatory kind).  The fossa weighs between 5.5 and 8.5 kg (12 to 20 pounds) and lives mostly on primates—namely the lemurs which are everywhere indigenous to the strange micro-continent.  Since lemurs are brilliant climbers, the fossa is also an arboreal specialist and it can run down trees headfirst and execute stunning acrobatic leaps which would make a trapeze artist blanche and retire.  The predator prefers hunting lemurs but it also dines on bats, reptiles, tenrecs, rodents, birds, and whatever other small living creatures it can catch.

The first time I saw footage of a fossa, my mind kept insisting it was a cat…no a weasel…no a stretched-out bear.  Its extreme similarity to familiar predators combines in a sinister way with its lithe alien movements to make it seem very peculiar.  I wonder too if some desperate little tree-creature part of our brain doesn’t respond badly to the fossa-for it is difficult to look away from one in action, and it has many similarities with analogous predators encountered by our arboreal forbears.  It hunts both by day and night.  It climbs, swims, runs, and lurks with great skill–so there is never any true safety for animals which it preys on.

Cryptoprocta ferox.

Male Fossa (Cryptoprocta ferox) by Darren Naish

According to taxonomy and genetics, the fossa is indeed closely related to cats, bears, weasels, seals, and all of the other members of the order Carnivora. The fossa is perhaps most closely related to viverrids (the civets and genets), but it shares many features with felines as well, and may be considered to be descended from an intermediary form. The ancestor of the fossa first came to Madagascar around 20 million years ago, during the Miocene as forests dwindled and grasslands spread on Africa and as Madagascar drifted particularly close to the great continent.

Fossa yawning (photo by beachkat1)

Fossa yawning (photo by beachkat1)

Fossas live to around twenty years of age.  They have social lives similar to cats, and even have similar vocalizations.  Fossas of both genders have bizarre elongated external genitals (and the male member is equipped with backwards pointing spines).  Additionally, they secrete an orange substance which “colors their underparts”.  You can go look up details and pictures on your own time.   The mother fossa gives birth to litters of two to four (though occasionally as few as one or as many as six) cubs, which mature slowly.  Physical maturity is not reached until the age of two and the young fossa do not reproduce until a year or two after that.  Fossa have always been solitary and rare, but human habitat-destruction (among other ills) seems to be making them even scarcer.

A Fossa Cubs born at Catoctin Wildlife Preserve in Maryland

A Fossa Cubs born at Catoctin Wildlife Preserve in Maryland

I started writing this post imagining that the fossa would be esoteric and largely unknown to most of my readers, but the internet quickly revealed that it is a film star and a media darling of our age.  Apparently a fossa was the villain of “Madagascar” an animated children’s film about lemur society and a zoo-breakout. How did I miss an animated movie about lemurs?  I’m going to go watch that right now.

Sarmatians_Map

The Sarmatians were a confederation of warlike steppe nomads who flourished on the Pontic-Caspian steppe between the 5th century BC and the 4th century AD (the Pontic-Caspian steppe stretches from the northern shores of the Black Sea to the eastern coast of the Caspian Sea). Archaeologists believe the Sarmatians were an Iranian people who worshipped gods of fire–a cosmology somewhat akin to that of the ancient Persian Zoroastrians.

An artist's reconstruction of what late Sarmatian Warriors might have looked like

An artist’s reconstruction of what late Sarmatian Warriors might have looked like

Perhaps you will notice that I have given Sarmatian culture a somewhat loose date range of about a thousand years, and placed them in a vague—but vast–geographic region approximately the size of North America’s Great Plains. This is because the Sarmatians are indeed mysterious. What is known about them comes from unreliable historical accounts from classical antiquity or from excavations of their kurgans (burial chambers covered with earthen mounds).

Sarmatian Kurgan 4th century BC, Fillipovka, South Urals, Russia.

Sarmatian Kurgan 4th century BC, Fillipovka, South Urals, Russia.

Though built around an ancient Persian kernel, Sarmatian culture seems to have picked up elements from the diverse societies around the Pontic Caspian steppe. Sarmatian artifacts recovered from excavations betray influences from Scythian, Hellenistic, Roman, Siberian, and even Chinese sources. It is quite possible that the Sarmatians did not just pick up ideas from these cultures but assimilated people from them as well. Historians and archaeologists have been arguing about whether the Sarmatians were even a distinct culture at all, or whether it was many different peoples with different histories (hence the use of the word “confederation” in the original description up there at the top). What seems certain is that they were fierce horse-warriors. Some of them raided and traded whereas others settled down and picked up agriculture. Their ways of life endured—as did their political hegemony—until the great upheavals and migrations of the 4th century when they were wiped out/dispersed/intermingled by Ostragoth and Hun hordes.

Sarmatian Diadem found in the burial mound at Khoklach

Sarmatian Diadem found in the burial mound at Khoklach

I am going to leave the ins-and-outs of defining culture to anthropologists and instead show you a magnificent Sarmatian artifact which directly illustrates the remarkable syncretism of their world. Here is a Sarmatian diadem which was discovered at the Khokhlach kurgan (which was excavated near the modern town of Novocherkassk). The crown is a principle treasure of the Hermitage Museum–which does not lack for great treasures–but some of the details of its modern provenance have seemingly been muddled by the upheavals of modern Russian history (which seems appropriate).

Sarmatian_crown
The golden headdress presents magnificent deer and ibex gathering around a central tree of life. A Hellenic-looking head carved of semi-precious stone has been incorporated as a centerpiece. The piece is studded with pearls and cabochons of amber and garnet. Ornate golden leaves hang down from it as pendants.

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The diadem is exquisite, but at first glimpse it seems to exist outside of human culture—like it came from some strange fantasy realm. Only by carefully studying its individual components does it suddenly take on a coherent historical identity of its own. I wish we knew more about the Sarmatians from written sources, but I feel we know a great deal about them, just by looking at this beautiful blended crown.

Argh! SQUIRRELS!

Squirrel damage...

Squirrel damage…

Since December, the garden has been a desolate wasteland. Great sheets of scabrous ice and unwholesome snow have covered everything. Above the frozen crust, only the holly and the yew showed any life. Finally, here in mid-March, Brooklyn has started to come alive again. Little green shoots appeared—crocuses and the tender tips of tulips—only to be ripped off and thrown down by marauding squirrels. How I detest these hardy arboreal rodents!

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I hate the squirrels so much! But I like them and admire them too. The ones in the back yard are eastern gray squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis). Their taxonomical name means “shadow tail” for they have distinctive furry tails which look gray at a distance but are actually many subtle woodland colors. If the squirrels don’t want to be seen, they can wrap themselves in their tails and vanish like chameleons—but usually they wish to be observed as they brazenly saunter around the garden committing enormities. Brooklyn needs some more hawks to thin their ranks a bit.

Speaking of thinning, I guess I could feed the squirrels. They are understandably hungry as they use up their final winter resources and start families. It would mean that I spent a bunch of money on seeds, but maybe the distracted squirrels would stop tearing up my spring flowers. Yet, if I do that, the squirrel population will burgeon. These accursed squirrels gnawed a hole in the side of the house and began living in the crawl-space above the bathroom, so doing anything which creates more of them is fraught with peril. Last year, the landlady sent trappers to capture the squirrels in the house (the battle of wits between the squirrels and the wacky band of Trinidadian misfits she found was really something).

What is he eating? Is that insulation foam?

What is he eating? Is that insulation foam?

Gray squirrels are not unlike the tree-dwelling rodent-type creatures from which primates evolved (a group of extinct animals which I need to write about at some point).  Although they seem frenetic and crazed, the squirrels are actually surprisingly clever. There is an intense methodology to how they bury things for winter (indeed, they are saving—something I certainly don’t have the discipline to do). They loquaciously chatter and chirps are clearly a complex system of communication. Maybe I shouldn’t begrudge them some ruined crocuses and tulips, but, as I write this, I notice that it’s snowing again. Those prospective flowers were all that was giving me hope for spring…and now even those jaunty little bud tips are gone.

paint

Here is an elegant paint color with an interesting historical backstory.  Charleston green is a shade of green so dark that it seems black.  Indeed, Wikipedia just straight-out lists it under black instead of green, so perhaps Charleston Green really is black.  The story goes that, after the American Civil War, mass quantities of black paint were provided by the Federal government for reconstruction.  The proud (albeit economically ruined) aesthetes of Charleston could not bear to paint their lovely vintage houses black–so they mixed in small quantities of yellow in order to create an exceedingly dark green.

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Whether this story is true or not, the color is very dramatic and pretty, although admittedly subtle.  In the modern post-post-Civil War period, Charleston Green seems to mostly be used for shutters, doors, and accents where it looks especially good against white, cream, bricks, or pale green.  Maybe it is not necessarily so much a response to northern aggression as a solid aesthetic choice. I feel like I’ve seen a whole house or two painted this color in my own neighborhood in New York, and weren’t the carpetbaggers supposed to have come from here?

Charleston-pale-green

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I had lots of favorite toys as a child—the toy I loved most changed as I changed ages (a truth which continues to be valid).  However, like most boys of my demographic, one of my all-time favorite toy properties was the Star Wars action figure line by Kenner.  This was a line of licensed toys based on the blockbuster space opera films. The Kenner action figures changed all the parameters of toy manufacturing & sales and made a bajillion dollars…but I don’t have to tell you about Star Wars action figures; unless you are some bizarre eremite or a post-human reading this in the distant future, you already know all about them.  Anyway I uncritically loved all the figures I had–except for three problem figures:  R2D2 had a white marble stuck up inside of him which made it impossible to deploy his third leg (I had the droid shop—and the third leg! but to no avail). Han Solo’s head broke off and was lost: he was in the Hoth Anorak, so afterwards he just looked like a mountaineer who had slipped, but I still knew it was Han, so it was pretty devastating. And, perhaps worst of all, somebody chewed up Greedo’s head.

The internet, however, has no lack of unblemished Greedos.

The internet, however, has no lack of unblemished Greedos.

Now R2D2 was not a problem—you could still play with him.  Han Solo’s terminal accident came as I was outgrowing the figures.  But, throughout my childhood, Greedo’s disfigurement always bothered me.  Plus who chewed up his head?  Was it the dog?  Was it my little sister?  Was it me?  He had come into my hands when I was at such a tender age, that the secret of his scars was lost.  I could make it work—Greedo’s fate in the movies was pretty inglorious.  When you were playing, it was easy to make believe he had been savaged by some horrible space monster.  Yet he was one of the most alien of the alien characters and that was diminished.  Plus his big soulful empty eyes—his best feature!–were ruined.

Peckoltia greedoi (Armbruster/Auburn University)

Peckoltia greedoi (Armbruster/Auburn University)

That is a pretty long introduction to today’s post which–as you no doubt anticipated—is about catfish! Johnathan Armbruster is an ichthyologist who curates the fish collection for Auburn University Museum of Natural History.  Recently, as he was going through old specimens, he found an unknown catfish collected from the Amazon in 1998.  Using his special ichthyology powers, Armbruster determined this was an entirely new species of armored suckermouth catfish. Destiny was in his hands.  He had to name the new catfish.  I should mention that the defining features of this new armored catfish were its big soulful empty eyes (as well as some head appendages and a ribbed body).

Greedo really was named first

Greedo really was named first

Armbruster reached back to his own childhood memories and named the fish Peckoltia greedoi, in honor of the incompetent Rodian bounty hunter (well also in honor of Gustavo Peckolt, a member of the Natural History Commission—but Armbruster didn’t get to choose the genus name).   Looking at the fish, the movie character, and the action figure, I become ever more convinced the little catfish is actually named after the toy. I wonder if Armbruster’s Greedo action figure was chewed up too.

Still Life with Mystery Serum (Wayne Ferrebee, 2002, oil on canvas)

Still Life with Mystery Serum (Wayne Ferrebee, 2002, oil on canvas)

Happy Saint Patrick’s Day!  Last week’s post about Kelly green did not seem like enough to celebrate that vivid and timely hue, so here is a little still life painting I made long ago back when I was painting small collections of household objects.  The symbolic import of the painting is unclear, but, thanks to its color palette, it certainly has a Saint Patrick’s Day feel. Protestant orange is condensed into a small glowing sphere—an orange star? A gumball? An eye?  Two electric fuses of brass and muted green sit nearby.  The majority of the composition is dedicated to a silk handkerchief filled with horrors and delights.  Upon the glowing green field, a golden ring glistens evocatively next to a small bottle of some unknown elixir or extract.  But beware: beside these ambiguous treasures a tiny orange scorpion lurks–waiting for the unwary hand. To me the composition has always seemed like what a person would find inside a leprechaun’s pockets if one were foolish enough to look there. Or maybe these are purchases from a derelict gumball machine which someone kept pumping quarters into in fading hopes of getting something better…

imageEvery year around Saint Patrick’s Day, we delve into Irish folklore to feature alarming mythological beings from the Emerald Isles. Nothing has beaten the frolicsome (yet oddly troubling) leprechauns in terms of popularity, however last year’s post about the sluagh–an airborne host of dark spirits which come from the otherworld–was certainly much creepier. This year gets darker still (well, at least for some of us) as we explore the leannán sídhe, a dark temptress who preys on disaffected writers, artists, and creative folk! Argh! Seriously, did Irish mythmakers have a picture of me on the whiteboard when they came up with this stuff?

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The leannán sídhe was thought of as a woman of the aos sídhe (the otherworld folk) who would assume mortal form as an inhumanly beautiful woman. She would take an artist or poet as a lover and offer them inspiration in exchange for love and devotion. With her wit, intelligence, and affection she would inspire their craft. With her supernatural beauty she would bind them to her and become their muse. Yet the relationship would become more and more oppressive and intense until the artist became consumed with obsession for her. Once the artist was besotted to the point of madness, the leannán sídhe would disappear. The abandoned mortal lover would suffer from intense despair and either pine to death or commit suicide. After the artist was dead, the leannán sídhe would reappear and take make off with the corpse which she would take back to her underground lair. There she would hang the body up from a hook on her ceiling and drain the artist’s blood into a huge red cauldron. This cauldron of blood was the source of her everlasting life, youth, and beauty.

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Once we set aside the casual misogyny which floats atop the surface of this myth, it reveals its deeper meaning: the myth of the leannán sídhe evokes the artist’s primal fear of the contemporary art market where laughing art dealers, gallerists, and corporations drain the artist of their creative vitality and then profit from it. Better to labor away in poverty and anonymity then deal with these terrifying forces.

Argh! God help us!

Argh! God help us!

Wait…ugh… this can’t be right! What is up with these fiendish Irish myths? Maybe next year I had better celebrate Saint Patrick’s Day by writing about something less frightening, bloody, or controversial—maybe Irish politics…

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