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Bullet train! Yes!

Usually I avoid quotidian political subjects, but I am excited about the newly released plans for high speed rail (which fit very well with my preferred vision of the future) and I was also angered by the kneejerk opposition to those plans.  It would be fun and elucidating to write about the many merits of high speed rail and the great opportunities which such a system presents.  Unfortunately that doesn’t seem to be the way that political discourse is conducted in America anymore, so I will bow to contemporary conventions and belittle its foes.

A pro-rail article from Yahoo news presented these disparaging words from a rail critic, “Only two rail corridors in the world – France’s Paris to Lyon line and Japan’s Tokyo to Osaka line – cover their costs, says Ken Button, director of the Center for Transportation Policy at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va.”

Hmm, I actually don’t think anything in the transportation world covers its cost.  Ken Button, whose quote makes him sound profoundly ignorant of transportation realities (and whose name makes him sound like an off-brand toy) is just blithely assuming that roads, highways, car infrastructure, and even air infrastructure is all free.  In fact these things cost a great deal of money–and taxpayers foot the bill. Even “for-profit” airlines are heavily subsidized and supported by public money.  But it is money that taxpayers are willing to shell out, because we like having a civilization.

"All of this is completely free and appears by magic!" --Ken Button (cit. needed)

Sometimes, when I’m on the subway and lack an appropriate book, I read one of New York City’s tabloids. The editorial section usually features some suburban blowhard observing that since he doesn’t take the subway he doesn’t want his tax dollars paying for it–let the strap hangers pay for it themselves with greatly increased fares. This poor logic always bothers me.  An equally weak counter argument would run thus: I don’t drive, so why should my tax dollars pay for the roads?  (I could add that roads are filled with dangerous maniacs who love to carelessly mow down children, working people, and even one another.  Additionally cars increase our reliance on foreign oil suppliers and cause a variety of environmental problems.)

But it is wrong to dislike roads (and the automobiles on them).  Roads allow goods and services to move everywhere: they are the means by which emergency vehicles get around and food is delivered.  Outside the city, they are the only way to travel (except for ornithopter or pony).  But, here in the northeast corridor, they are also a mess.  So are airports for that matter.  If we want to move around freely in the future we will need new means of doing so (maybe we won’t want to travel—we might be busy shooting arrows at each other and fighting over canned food, however politicians would be wise not to make that a centerpiece of their vision for the future).  I’m sure the anti-subway driving enthusiast writing to the Daily News would find new worth for the subway if all 5 million riders decided to drive to work (particularly if it was on the day his heart gave out and he needed an ambulance).  Maybe he will even have some qualms about quashing public transportation when petrol shoots up a few more dollars (and growing instability in the middle East always makes that seem likely sooner rather than later).

Of course there are very valid concerns about the proposed high speed rail system: Amtrak is a mess (having been remade in the image of a pork barrel), and we don’t want to damage our extremely reliable freight rail service.  And the whole thing is going to cost far more money than it is being billed at (money we don’t have). But I imagine that money would be thrown out anyway (remember “cash for clunkers” which subsidized wealthy car buyers to purchase new Toyotas?) and at least we’ll have beautiful new bullet trains and an additional way for people to move around the country.  Additionally, such a system will be necessary when we inevitably move to a nuclear-powered world.  Either opponents of the new high speed rail plans should produce some long term plans of their own or they should just come straight out and proclaim they are friends of Middle Eastern despots and that they oppose technological progress and infrastructure growth.

Of course high speed rail is all a dream anyway--this is the most likely actual future.

The Coat of Arms of the Kingdom of the Netherlands

The Kingdom of the Netherlands has the 16th highest nominal gross domestic product in the world. This becomes more impressive when one realizes the Dutch have the 61st largest population.  Holland’s long history of trade and empire has combined with its own native tradition of artistic excellence to leave the country littered with all manner of treasures and masterpieces.  The country is a parliamentary democracy ruled by a beloved sovereign, Queen Beatrix.  If you say anything censorious about the reigning monarch to a Dutch subject, you are likely to get a scowl and some harsh words (or possibly a fist).  At times, the personal net worth of Queen Beatrix has been reckoned to surpass that of the Queen of England (depending on the art and financial markets).

So what is the crown of the Queen of the Netherlands like? Actually the crown, which symbolizes the sovereignty of the Kingdom of the Netherlands (which presently consists of the Netherlands in Western Europe and two overseas territories in the Caribbean: the Netherlands Antilles and Aruba) and represents the dignity of the sovereign as head of state, is of comparatively recent construction.  It was made in 1840, upon the abdication of King William I, and it differs substantially from the heraldic crown of the house of Orange (which–being heraldic–exists only in depictions).   The actual crown is very small.  It appears to be gold but it is actually constructed of silver covered with thin gilding.  The crown has no actual jewels but is ornamented with colored glass, foil, and artificial pearls.  These “pearls” which are the chief feature of the royal headdress are constructed from paste covered with fish skin.

For some reason the Dutch kings and queens have never chosen to wear the crown during coronations, but the object has always been present on a special table.  The crown has only appeared in public during coronations (in 1898, 1948, and 1980), during a royal funeral in 1934, and at an exhibition in 1990.  Below is the largest picture I could find.

Um...the Royal Crown of the Kingdom of the Netherlands!

Taoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism are venerable faiths, but Chinese culture is so ancient that there are much older religious beliefs which are still part of the social framework. Some of these gods and legends have become part of the newer religions of East Asia (particularly of Taoism, with its mystic animist bent); other figures endure in popular culture and folklore—like Chang‘e, goddess of the moon; and some of the truly old legends have become hopelessly confused. Such a figure is Hundun, an ancient featureless chaos god, whose blandness and confused nature have made his name a synonym for a hopeless muddle.

There are several conflicting myths about Hundun, but the most ancient is the most powerful. It serves as a troubling warning to do-gooders everywhere. The story was told in the Zhuangzi, a collection of writings made around 370 BC during the tumultuous warring states period. The Oxford handbook of Chinese mythology describes how the story “portrays Hundun as the god of the central region who has not a single aperture. Shu (literally meaning ‘fast’) was god of the south sea while Hu (‘swift’) was the god of the north sea. They often met each other at the central region reigned by Hundun. Hundun treated them very well so Shu and Hu hoped to pay a debt of gratitude to him.” The two gods decided that a being who did not have any orifices would certainly want a mouth for eating and ears with which to hear and nose for breathing and so forth. The gods surprised their quiet friend by chiseling a new orifice for him every day for a week. Unfortunately on the seventh day Hundun died from the massive trauma. It’s a gory and effective version of the “physician, do no harm” injunction!

However, this is not the only story about the being:  other versions of Hundun, just as confusing and disturbing, have sprung up over the years. In another myth Hundun was a sort of earless, eyeless beardog with a mouth but without internal organs. This disquieting entity would run up against the virtuous and slam against them–however it was fawning towards the wicked. Yet another story describes Hundun as a yellow bag with six vermilion feet and four cinnabar wings. This red-yellow being (again lacking a head and face) knew how to dance and sing, but seems to have few other characteristics.

The real nature of the original deity behind Hundun is thus rather obscure. What is obvious from the similarities of all three versions is that Hundun was a faceless deity unguided by conventional (or even recognizable) sensory input. Today in China “hundun” refers to something or someone which is muddleheaded (or to a sort of shrimp dumpling/wonton). I find the legend compelling because it relates to the types of life I write about. Humankind often thinks of mollusks as beings devoid of higher senses or of neural functions (neither characterization is always correct at all). The idea that someone (or something) which perceives differently from us lacks perception is commonplace but often inaccurate. Hu and Wu’s accidental murder of Hundun is also disturbing. It seems like an excellent metaphor for destroying something before understanding it (which humans excel at).

Common Wombat (Vombatus ursinus)

It’s the final day of Furry Mammal Herbivore week which has so far featured two different lagomorphs, one rodent, and the enigmatic hyrax. To mix things up a bit we are ending with a marsupial–the stolid wombat.  The wombat’s unusual moniker comes from the Eora language which was spoken by the Aboriginal people who originally inhabited the Sidney area. There are three species of wombats and all are powerful burrowing herbivores which are active mostly at twilight and at night.  Wombats are marsupials but the openings of  their pouches face backwards to prevent dirt from getting inside as they dig.  Although wombats are not often seen, their presence can be identified by the many burrows which they excavate and by their distinctive cubic scat which looks like bouillon cubes (you’ll have to look it up on your own).

Wombat physiognomy betwrays their close relation to koalas.

Wombats are larger than this week’s other herbivores, reaching nearly a meter (3 feet) in length.  Although they are preyed on by dingos and Tasmanian Devils, their large muscles and heavy claws give them some protection (as does their tailless haunch which is composed largely of dense cartilage).   A predator following a wombat into a burrow is confronted not only with the shield-like flesh of their rear-quarters but also with fearsome donkey kicks from their powerful back legs.  Wombats are never far from their burrows since they construct up to 12 at various spots around their territory.  Even if they are related to the dimwitted koalas, wombats are said to have a more complicated brain than other marsupials (although their intelligence in no way approaches that of the brilliant monotreme echidna) and they often surprise trappers and zoologists with their clever evasive thinking.  Additionally, when hard pressed, they can run 100 meters in less than 10 seconds—impressive when one learns the human world record is 9.58 seconds.

Death of a Wombat (Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1869, pen and ink)

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, painter, poet and weirdo, used the wombat to parody the Victorian taste for overly lugubrious gothic melodrama in his sad drawing “The death of a Wombat” (above).  The drawing shows a plump 19th century gentleman weeping for his deceased wombat friend while declaiming the following lament:

I never reared a young Wombat
To glad me with his pin-hole eye,
But when he most was sweet & fat
And tail-less; he was sure to die!

The work might be a parody but I find the poor dead wombat curiously affecting.  Fortunately all wombats are now protected by Australian law.  Despite such protection, the creatures are still having trouble competing for grazing with cattle, sheep, and above all rabbits.  Hopefully wombats will continue to endure–the endearing little bulldozers are an irreplaceable component of Australia and Tasmania.


Today (February 3rd, 2011) is the first day of the Chinese year 4709, the year of the metal rabbit. You should go have some dumplings and rice wine and then light a bunch of firecrackers and dance with a giant dragon! If you have any business in China, you should relax—nothing is getting done there for nearly a fortnight.  This is by far the biggest and most important holiday of the year.  For two weeks, the ceaseless seething all-consuming industry of rising China comes to a stop.  Even the meanest factory drudges take time off to leave the manufacturing cities and travel back to the country for some well-earned time with family and loved ones.  When you celebrate the year of the rabbit you will be doing so with more than a billion souls.

The Year of the Metal Rabbit

The rabbit is a mythological figure of great standing in the Chinese pantheon.  The divine jade rabbit is a sage and a potion master capable of mixing the elixer of immortality.  He dwells on the moon with the beautiful and troubling moon goddess Chang’e, but every once in a while he scampers down to earth to perform good deeds and instruct worthwhile students.  In the middle ages he reputedly saved the inhabitants of Beijing from a plague!

The Jade Rabbit mixes potions in front of his mansion on the moon.

According to astrologers and geomancers the year of the rabbit is traditionally associated with the family and the homestead. It is a good time for artistic pursuits, diplomatic missions, and for shoring up the peace (which always needs to be shored up after a dramatic and dangerous  tiger year).   People born in the Year of the Rabbit are ambitious and have excellent taste and fashion sense.  They are frequently financially lucky: their ability to sense danger and flee from it gives them an edge in business.  It goes without saying that they are cautious and careful, never yielding to impulse.  Well—not never–although outwardly reserved, rabbits have their own private life.  You can look to the animal kingdom for instruction…

Speaking of the animal kingdom, this week we are celebrating Furry Herbivore Week here at Ferrebeekeeper (I made the text red since it’s not a real thing), and the rabbit has a place of honor. Few animals are more universally known and more universally successful. The family Leporidae consists of over 50 species of rabbits and hares and, together with the family Ochotonidae (the pikas), constitutes the order Lagomorpha.  But whereas pikas have a limited range, rabbits and hares are found worldwide except for Antarctica (and possibly Manhattan).  The Encyclopedia of Mammals eloquently describes the basic leporidae design:

Leporids are small to moderately sized mammals, adapted for rapid movement. They have long hind legs, with four toes on each foot, and shorter fore legs, with five toes each. The soles of their feet are hairy, to improve grip while running, and they have strong claws on all of their toes. Leporids also have distinctive, elongated and mobile ears, and they have an excellent sense of hearing. Their eyes are large, and their night vision is good, reflecting their primarily nocturnal or crepuscular mode of living.

Together with a quick and fecund reproductive cycle and a taste for readily available vegetation, this is a winning design.  Few families of mammal are more bountiful.  When rabbits and hares were introduced to the continent of Australia, they overran it completely.  Armies of bunnies have subsequently wrecked havoc on the lives of marsupial herbivores with which they compete. It is one of the most disastrous stories of invasive animals in history.

But to the rabbits it was a story of success.  It always is.  Individual rabbit stories end with jaws or talons or steel snares, but the overall story is always a running leaping thriving tale of victory.  You shouldn’t look at one rabbit or hare, you should look at them all.  When you do you will be amazed by the luck and resiliency and beauty of the leporids.  I hope you think about them sometimes as you embark on your own happy and successful year of the rabbit!

The Groundhog, Marmota monax (photo by Bill Smith)

Happy Groundhog Day!  Preliminary reports coming in seem to indicate that the nation’s most eminent groundhog oracles are not seeing their shadows today (what with the continent bestriding blizzard and all).  Oddly, this is interpreted as a sign that spring will arrive early this year.  However I tend to think those groundhogs on TV are media personalities who have forgotten their rural roots.  When I lived on a farm, the concept behind the holiday was more straightforward:  if you saw an actual groundhog on Groundhog Day, then winter might indeed end early, but if you didn’t (and I never did) winter would not be over for six more weeks.  Today most non-celebrity groundhogs did not stir from their deep hibernation chambers.  We probably still have plenty of winter left.

Groundhog Day is observed on or around Candelmas, which ostensibly celebrates the presentation of Baby Jesus to the temple:   Mary and Joseph took Jesus to the Kohens & Levites to perform the redemption of the firstborn and ceremonially purchase their firstborn son’s life back from the priests (I’m not sure Jesus ever really escaped the priesthood or the temple of Solomon so maybe his parents should have gotten their money back–but that’s a different story).  Candelmas was elided with pre-Christian holidays involving the prediction of the weather by animal augury.  The holiday’s roots in America are from the Pennsylvania Germans.  Apparently in pagan Germany, the original animal weather prophets were badgers or bears.  Imagine how exciting this holiday would be if we stuffed our pompous civic officials together with a disgruntled bear who had just been prodded awake from hibernation so people could take flash photographs!

At any rate we have gotten rather far afield of the day’s celebrated weather oracle, the groundhog or woodchuck (Marmota monax) which is actually a rodent of the marmot family, Sciuridae. Marmots are large solitary ground squirrels which, like pikas, generally live in the mountains of Asia, Europe, and North America.  The groundhog is an exception among the marmots since it prefers to live on open ground or at the edge of woodlands.  The deforestation of North America for farms and subdivisions has caused groundhog population to rise.  Although groundhogs are omnivores, the bulk of their diet is vegetation such as grasses, berries, and crops.  They are gifted diggers who construct a deep burrow with multiple exits.  This burrow serves as their chief living quarters and refuge from predators.  Since groundhogs enter true hibernation, they usually also maintain a separate winter burrow (with a chamber beneath the frost line) for the sole purpose of their months-long suspended animation.

A Groundhog Enjoying a Garden

Groundhogs, however, have a deeper utility to modern humankind than as primitive weather gods.  Devoted readers will know my fascination with liver research, and groundhogs are the principal research animal used in studies of Hepatitis B and liver cancer.  Since groundhogs are prone to a similar virus in the wild, they always develop liver cancer when infected with hepatitis B.  Laboratory groundhogs have thus been responsible for many advances in understanding liver disease and pathology–including the discovery of a vaccine for Hepatitis B and the realization that immunizing against hepatitis B virus can prevent liver cancer.  Currently 350 million people around the world are suspected to have hepatitis B.  Forty percent of those infected will develop chronic liver damage or cancer.  According to the World Health Organization, an estimated 600,000 people die every year from complications related to the infection (which is more than the total number of United States citizens killed in World War I and World War II combined).  Perhaps the Groundhog should be thought of as a profound benefactor to humankind thanks to its utility as a laboratory animal.

Yesterday, if you read the post concerning pikas, you probably found yourself wondering why pikas are found throughout the highlands of North America, Europe, and Asia but do not dwell in the rocky scree of Africa and the Middle East.  As it turns out, another animal grazes the arid mountain lands in those areas.  Although superficially this furry herbivore seems to share many features with the pika, it is a very different sort of creature with an entirely different (and rather grand) history.

A Rock Hyrax near Capetown, South Africa

I’m writing about the hyrax, a tiny tusked grazing creature with certain anachronistic features of earlier mammals (such as an unique dentition and poorly developed internal temperature regulation ).  Hyraxes are the only living members of the family Procaviidae, itself the only extant family of the order Hyracoidea.  Hyracoids are rare and unusual today, found only in niche ecosystems, but 40 million years ago they were among the dominant grazers in Africa.  We’ll get back to the paleontological history of the hyrax family at the end of the article, but for now here’s an overview of the living hyraxes.

Hyraxes (photo by Vladimir Danilov)

Found in rocky and mountainous area of the Sahara and the Middle East, hyraxes are equipped with sweat glands on the tough rubbery pads of their feet.  This helps them keep cool and gives them traction on the steep cliffs where they dwell.  Additionally they have sophisticated kidneys which help minimize water consumption in their arid rocky homes.  Among the small mammals, Hyraxes, uniquely, possess multi-chambered stomachs capable of digesting plant materials and fibers.  Their complicated digestive apparatus makes use of numerous symbiotic bacteria to absorb the nutrients out of the coarse shrubs and weeds they eat.  Unlike cows and other artiodactyl ruminants, hydraxes do not chew a cud–however their aggressive tusk gnashing was mistaken for cud-chewing by biblical law-givers so um, I guess they are (incorrectly) not kosher according to Deuteronomy.

A Family of Rock Hyraxes (Procavia capensis)

Hyraxes are small animals but they have long lives, elaborate social networks, and surprisingly capacious memories (at least according to zoologists and neurophysiologists).  I have watched them at the Bronx zoo where they live in an enclosure filled with baboons and ibexes: it is intriguing to see how their miniature society copes with these large aggressive neighbors.  The hyrax colony has all sorts of rules and communication protocols dealing with sentries, foragers, and communal huddling for warmth.  Their elaborate social behavior (quite lacking in yesterday’s pikas and tomorrow’s groundhogs) makes sense when one looks at their relatives.

A Painting of Arsinotheriums by Heinrich Harder

As I noted above the Hyracoids were a very diverse and widespread taxonomic order in Africa during the Eocene and Oligocene epochs (55 to 34 million years ago). To quote the McGraw-Hill Encyclopedia of Science and Technology,  “the early hyracoids ranged from animals as small as rabbits to ones as large as modern Sumatran rhinoceroses. The fossil skeletons of the early hyracoids indicate that some species were active runners and leapers, while others were heavy, piglike quadrupeds.”  In fact these hyracoids, or their immediate ancestors, seem to have been the basal group (which is to say the progenitors) of the paenungulates.  DNA sequencing and the fossil record both give compelling evidence for this relationship.  This means that the long ago ancestors of the hyraxes–which looked much like today’s hyraxes–were also the grandfather species for the mighty proboscideans—the towering mammoths, the mighty gomphotheres, the mastodons, and the ingenious elephants.  Not only that, the early hydracods were also ancestors to the desmostylians, the embrithopods (like the pictured Arsinoitherium), and the gentle sirenians such as dugongs and manatees.  When you look at a hyrax you are not looking a tusked groundhog, but at a sophisticated social animal with some giant successful cousins.

A (Proboscidean-centric) Portion of the Paenungulata Clade

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