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Gathered here for your amusement and delight are three world flags which feature trees (cedar, pine, and palm).  I have arranged them in chronological order, but this could also represent order of importance, since Lebanon is a nation, Norfolk Island a territory, and the British Indian Ocean Territory is essentially a military base.

The Flag of Lebanon

The Flag of Lebanon

The flag of Lebanon shows one of the famous cedars of Lebanon which are referenced so poetically in the Bible. The colors and layout of the flag were specifically designed not to refer to any of Lebanon’s different religious groups. To quote Wikipedia, “The red stripes symbolize the pure blood shed in the aim of liberation. The white stripe symbolizes peace, and the white snow covering Lebanon’s mountains. The green cedar, (Species: Cedrus libani or Lebanon Cedar) symbolizes immortality and steadiness.” This flag was first flown in the dark year of 1943 as the world reeled in chaos and battle.

 

The Flag of Norfolk Island

The Flag of Norfolk Island

Norfolk Island is a small verdant island in the Pacific Ocean located between Australia, New Zealand and New Caledonia.  The flag of Norfolk Island was adopted in the long ago year of…1980.  It shows a Norfolk Island Pine Tree on a white field between two bands of green (which represent the island’s rich vegetation).  Norfolk Island is technically an outer territory of the Commonwealth of Australia but it enjoys a high degree of autonomy.

 

    Flag of the British Indian Ocean Territory

Flag of the British Indian Ocean Territory

Civilians cannot visit the British Indian Ocean Territory. The only inhabited island, Diego Garcia, is dominated by vast secretive Anglo-American military bases from which the two allies run their Indian Ocean and Central Asian naval and air missions. The flag is similar to other British commonwealth/colony/dependency flags in that it has the Union Flag in the upper hoist-side corner.  The crown represents the British monarchy and the palm tree is an obvious symbol of the island’s flora.  The meaning of the blue wavy lines is unknown.  Indeed it is unclear to what extent this flag is official or even in use.  This flag has been in use since 1990.

Naked Mole Rat Queen with Offspring

Naked Mole Rat Queen with Offspring

Naked Mole Rats (Heterocephalus glaber) are unique among mammals in that they are eusocial (well actually Damaraland mole rats might be eusocial too, but they are in the same family, the Bathyergidae).  Like bees or ants, mole rats live in a hive society: only one naked mole rat female is fertile and she gives birth to sterile workers who maintain and protect the underground burrows where the colony lives.  A queen breeds with 3 or 4 male naked mole rats and she jealously guards her reproductive monopoly.  If other female naked mole rats begin to produce sexual hormones or behave in a queenlike manner, the queen will viciously attack them.  When the old queen dies, violent battles can break out to become the new queen.  Once a victor emerges, the spaces between her vertebrae expand and she becomes longer and larger. Mole rats breed all year and they can produce a litter of three to twelve pups every 80 days.

Naked Mole Rat (Heterocephalus glaber)

Naked Mole Rat (Heterocephalus glaber)

Naked mole rats live in the arid parts of Kenya, Somalia, and Ethiopia.  They feed on huge tubers which weigh as much as all the mole rats in a colony.  The mole rats eat the tubers slowly from the inside, which give the roots time to regrow.  Additionally mole rats can efficiently recycle food, so newly weaned mole rats are fed feces (which can also provide sustenance for adults).    Naked mole rats have huge sharp incisors for tunneling.   Their lips close in such a way that the incisors always remain outside their mouth–so the mole rats can tunnel indefinitely without getting dirt in their mouths.   Worker mole rats are 8 to 10 cm (3 to 4 in) long and weigh 30 to 35 grams (1.1 to 1.2 oz), although the queen grows much larger.  Naked mole rats have weak eyes and tiny skinny legs.  In effect they are pale pink wrinkled tubes with a few long sensitive whisker-like hairs sprouting from their bodies.  They move equally quickly forwards and backwards through their elaborate tunnels (which can measure up to 5 kilometers (3 miles) in total length).

06_12_Digging_side

Mole rats are unusual among mammals in other significant ways as well.  Naked mole rats do not maintain same thermal homeostasis as other mammals.  Their body temperatures are much closer to the ambient temperature in their burrows.  If they become unduly cold, they move to the top tunnels of their burrows and huddle together.  If they become hot, the naked mole rats retreat into the bottom levels where the temperatures are cooler.

Oxygen is a precious commodity in the underground tunnels of mole rats, so the fossorial roents have evolved extremely efficient blood and lungs in order to maximize oxygen uptake.   Additionally mole rats have very low metabolic rates compared to other (non-hibernating) mammals.  Their hearts beat slowly:  they breathe shallowly and eat little. In times of drought or famine, they are capable of going into a survival mode where their already slow metabolisms drop another 25 percent.  Naked Mole rats lack a critical neural transmitter which would allow them to feel certain sorts of pain sensations (such as pain caused by acid or hot pepper).  It is believed that the mole rats lost the ability to feel such sensations because the high carbon dioxide levels in their tunnels lead to extremely acidic conditions (mole rats are also surprisingly acid resistant, although I shudder to think of how we know this).

naked-mole-rats

Mole rats live a long time—some captive mole rats are in their early thirties—and they do not age like other mammals but remain young and fit throughout their lives.  Additionally mole rats are untroubled by cancers.  It seems the underlying cause of this remarkable cancer-free long life is a certain hyaluronan (HMW-HA), a gooey peptide which fills up gaps between cells.  The fact that cells do not grow closely together prevents tumors from ever forming.  Hyaluronans exist in all other mammals (and in other animals).  The complex sugars are part of our joints and cartilage.  However the hyaluronan found in naked mole rats is much larger and more complicated.

Thanks to their ant-like colonial life and bizarre appearances, naked mole rats might seem quite alien, but they are near cousins to humans (primates and rodents are close relatives—which will surprise nobody who has ever known a businessperson).  They even come from the same part of Africa as us. The naked mole rats are social animals and they care deeply for one another over their decades of life.  Additionally our kinship with the wrinkly pink rats could provide other benefits.  Humans suffer greatly from aging and cancers.  Mole rats–with their remarkable hyaluronans–could provide workable insights into how to alleviate cancer and aging.

Family Portrait?

Family Portrait?

the-fortune-teller

Ferrebeekeeper has described all sorts of gods and goddesses of the underworld—we have covered deities of plague and of darkness, gods of death and betrayal, and all sorts of dark rulers of the next world, however there were also gods of the criminal underworld.  In the Roman pantheon, the goddess Laverna was the deity of thieves, dishonest tradesmen, cheaters, and frauds.  Although stories about Laverna are scant (since her worshippers did not necessarily want to flaunt their devotion) she is mentioned in the works of Plautus and Horace and her sacred sanctuary was near the Porta Lavernalis (a gate in the Servian walls which opened from the Aventine into a thief-infested grove of trees).  Various unsavory stretches of highway and dangerous urban groves throughout Italy were sacred to Laverna as well.  It has been speculated that she was originally a chthonic goddess of the Etruscans.

laverna

Laverna’s attributes were darkness and secrecy.  Her worshippers are said to have poured out libations to her with their left hands only.   There is a (probably apocryphal) myth about Laverna which illustrates her nature.  She appeared disguised as a beautiful noblewoman to a rich devout man and asked him to grant her lands to establish a temple to some other more mainstream Roman deity.  She earnestly promised the wealthy patron to honestly uphold her duty by swearing an oath upon her body itself.  When she received control of the lands, she robbed them blind, sold everything worth any gold, and then sold the land itself before disappearing with the lucre.  Her patron was distraught and he appealed to the Olympians to bring her to justice (based on the strength of the oath she swore).  The gods heard his prayers and they sought out Laverna to make her pay, but when they caught up with her she was only a head—having used thievish magic to make her body incorporeal.  Having no body (at least temporarily) she was free from the onus of her contract (although she probably looked pretty weird as just a flying head).

Aventine Hill

Aventine Hill

 

Bavaria today

Bavaria today

Napoleon broke up the Holy Roman Empire in 1806. One of the new kingdoms which he carved out of the decayed giant was the kingdom of Bavaria, based around a duchy which dated back to the middle of the first millennium.   The new kingdom of Bavaria was twice the size of the old duchy and it contained many of the prettiest parts of Germany (today Bavaria makes up 20% of Germany’s territory) thanks to the fact that he first king of Bavaria, Maximillian I, was a Francophile and an ardent French ally.

Maximilian I (portrait by Joseph Karl Stieler, ca. 1820)

Maximilian I (portrait by Joseph Karl Stieler, ca. 1820)

The kingdom of Bavaria survived the destruction of Napoleon’s empire.  Because of its large population and area (and since it contains the important city of Munich) Bavaria played a major part in the Prussian-lead unification of Germany in the late nineteenth century.  By playing Prussia off against its rival Austria, Bavaria incorporated into the German Empire on favorable term–indeed the army, train-system, and postal services of Bavaria remained distinct from the rest of Germany.  The unification of Bavaria with Germany took place in 1871.  Bavaria’s eccentric king, Ludwig II was the monarch who called for a German empire with the Prussian king Wilhelm I as emperor.  Coincidentally, the life of Ludwig  II was a fascinating Gothic melodrama of swans, and operas, and castles, and alienists (see more next week).

Bavaria, Germany

Bavaria, Germany

In November 1918, as World War I ended, Kaiser William II abdicated the throne of Germany.   King Ludwig III, soon followed him into exile, thus bringing the Wittelsbach dynasty to an end.  Overnight the Kingdom of Bavaria became the Free State of Bavaria (which it is still is today–although a bizarre attempt to found a communist republic nearly caused the state to leave Germany as the Bavarian Soviet Republic).

The Crown of Bavaria

The Crown of Bavaria

 

At any rate, here is a picture of the Crown of Bavaria, which can today be found at the Residenz palace in Munich.  The crown, which is purely ceremonial and was never worn,  was made by the most famous French goldsmith of the Napoleonic era (in accordance with Maximillian’s love of all things French) and is set with rubies, emeralds, sapphires, pearls, and a huge blue diamond–the Wittelsbach Diamond.  Or, at any rate it was originally set with this huge gem stone.  In the dark days of 1931, the Wittelsbach family pried the Wittelsbach diamond out and sold it in order to stay solvent.

The Crown of Bavaria (with an imitation Wittelsbach Diamond)

The Crown of Bavaria (with an imitation Wittelsbach Diamond)

The Black-necked Swan (Cygnus melancoryphus)

The Black-necked Swan (Cygnus melancoryphus)

The Black-necked Swan (Cygnus melancoryphus) weighs from 3.5 to 6.7 kg (7.7 to 15 pounds) and can have a wingspan of up to  135 to 177 cm (53 to 70 in). The swans mainly eat vegetation but they supplement their diet with small arthropods and little aquatic vertebrates. They are the smallest species of swan, but the largest waterfowl of South America (where they ranges from southern Brazil to the Falkland Islands).  Wonderfully, the black-necked swan is not on the edge of extinction or even threatened, but is commonplace.  The black-necked swan like freshwater lakes and marshes.  In winter the birds fly to the north of their range, whereas they spends summer in Patagonia and Chile.  The species can be easily recognized by the distinctive black head with red knobs near the base of the bill and white stripe behind eye.  Like mute swans of Europe and Black Swans of Australia, they are almost always silent.

The Black-necked Swan (Cygnus melancoryphus)

The Black-necked Swan (Cygnus melancoryphus)

Once my parents and I were at the Central Park zoo where there was a pair of these magnificent birds swimming in a pool surrounded by glass.  My father was wearing athletic shoes which were red, black, white, and gray.  The male swan took great umbrage with these shoes, presumably thinking they were the infuriating face of a rival swan.  He would make magnificent and terrifying aquatic attacks upon the glass behind which my father was standing until finally we were driven off and he had his sweetie all to himself (with no romantic threats coming from footwear).

Argh! No shoes please!

Argh! No shoes please!

H4A1000A

Ferrebeekeeper, like its author is meant to be benevolent and philosophical.  Yet sometimes, despite our best intentions, we all must grapple with the unthinkable–this is why, today, we descend into a realm of unimaginable pain.  Allow me to present the dreadful bullet ant (Paraponera clavata) also known as the 24-hour ant–the hymenopteran that sits at the apex of the Schmidt Sting Pain Index.  The worker ants of this genus are 18–30 mm (0.7 to 1.2 inches) long; there are no soldiers or other castes (and the queen herself is not much larger than any of the workers).  They live in nests just underground and they hunt for small arthropods (and nectar) in the trees above.

Paraponera clavata worker, Misahuallí, Ecuador

Paraponera clavata worker, Misahuallí, Ecuador

The common name of the ant comes from the 24 hour agony caused by the creature’s excruciating sting.  Victims of the ant claim that being stung feels the same as being shot (and since the ant ranges from Nicaragua and eastern Honduras south to Paraguay, it seems likely that some of the people it has stung have sufficient personal experience to intelligently make the comparison).  The ant’s venom is poneratoxin–a short chain of amino acids held together by covalent bonds–which acts as a neurotoxin.  Poneratoxin affects voltage-dependent sodium ion channels which therefor disrupts synaptic transmission within the central nervous system.  That sounds clinical and antiseptic, but people stung by the ant describe hours upon hour of unrelenting abject agony (along with partial paralysis and general flailing in the afflicted part).

Paraponera clavata (the coin is for scale--they are not grubbing for money)

Paraponera clavata (the coin is for scale–they are not grubbing for money)

The ants have developed this potent sting as a means to deter animals which might unearth and disturb their underground nests (or otherwise harass them as they hunt and gather food).  Unfortunately, the ants never reckoned on the madness of humans.   The Satere-Mawe people of Brazil, an Amazonian tribe of hunter gatherers utilize the ants as part of their manhood initiation ritual.  Shamans lull a hive of ants into paralysis with smoke and then sew the living ants (stinger end out) into a sort of grass mitten.  Thirteen-year-old boys take turns putting on the mitten for five to ten minutes.  Then the initiates face 24 hours of partial paralysis as well as pain so intense that it causes hallucinations and madness (and some boys die from the ceremony).  In order to be respected as a stoic and fearless warrior a young Satere-Mawe man might undergo this ritual a score of times.

Prepare to reassess just how bad 8th grade actually was...

Prepare to reassess just how bad 8th grade actually was…

flgdecl1000004758_-00_isreal-flag-decalHey! It’s the flag of Irsael: a blue Star of David on a white background between two blue stripes.  What’s the story with all of that blue anyway?  Well, like most stories involving Judaism, the story goes back a long, long way to the Holy Temple of Jerusalem, where the high priests wore a robe dyed a deep midnight blue.  In fact, this color, known as tekhelet, was a sacred color which appeared in temple hangings and in the twined fringes known as tzitzit which hang from the corners of Jewish prayer shawls.

A High Priest with Tekhelet Robe

A High Priest with Tekhelet Robe

The Tanahk (the sacred books of Judaism) are pretty specific about tekhelet.  It is mentioned nearly 50 times and it is specifically and explicitly stated that the special blue dye must be made from a shellfish called chilazon (rather than from the less expensive indigo).   And so it was for many lives of men.  Unfortunately everything went wrong in the first and second centuries AD when the Roman Empire destroyed the temple, defeated a Jewish revolt and exiled Jews from Jerusalem.  During this period of chaos and diaspora, the fine nuances of dyes were not of tantamount importance, and the way to make tekhelet were lost as was knowledge of exactly what sort of mollusk a chilazon actually is.

Oh, also, during travel, the Ark of the Covenant was supposed to be covered in a cloth of tekhelet

Oh, also, during travel, the Ark of the Covenant was supposed to be covered in a cloth of tekhelet

The Talmud demands that tekhelet be used for crafting the fringes of prayer shawls and it stipulates that counterfeit dyes must not be (knowingly) used.  This has left devout Jews with a conundrum as to how to proceed.  Since the Roman exile, Orthodox Jews have most commonly setteld plain white tzitzit, however there have also been several attempts to rediscover the mysterious chilazon and recreate tekhelet.   In the late nineteenth century the Grand Rabbi Gershon Henoch Leiner researched the subject and proclaimed that the common cuttlefish, Sepia officinalis, was the missing mollusk.  The dye he created, however, did not seem to fit Talmudic descriptions and chemists later determined it was simply Prussian blue (although the holy man proudly wore his blue fringes, as did many of his followers).

Common cuttlefish - Sepia officinalis (photo by David Nicholson)

Common cuttlefish – Sepia officinalis (photo by David Nicholson)

Hexaplex trunculus

Hexaplex trunculus

Another Talmudic scholar cross referenced his ancient religious text with modern malacology texts and concluded that the chilazon was actually Hexaplex trunculus, a murex snail which is a close relative of  Murex brandaris (the source of Tyrian purple).   The dye which he created from the secretions of Hexaplex trunculus was also purple and thus did not seem to fit the bill.  Only with the help of a chemist in the 1980s was it determined that the proper blue color could be obtained by exposing a solution of the snail slime dye to sunlight.  So if you are an orthodox Jew (or a high priest of the Temple) you might want to look into getting some tekhelet clothing.

Actual Tekhelet dyed wool (probably...)

Actual Tekhelet dyed wool (probably…)

 

The Supertrees being built

The Supertrees being built

Is this a nightmarish future dystopia?  No, of course not, it’s just Singapore, the authoritarian concrete & steel city-state on the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula.  Recognizing the manmade barrenness of land which should be a tropical rainforest, Singapore’s central planners mandated the creation of “the gardens by the bay” three gardens built on reclaimed land in central Singapore, adjacent to the Marina Reservoir.  The centerpiece of the gardens is “the supertree grove” a series of artificial trees ranging between 25 metres (82 ft) and 50 metres (160 ft) in height.  The artificial metal trees are rigged with water collectors and photovoltaic cells to mimic the function of real trees.  They have also been festooned with living vines, bromeliads, flowers, and ferns to be green and living in verisimilitude of actual trees.  Singapore hopes the strange structures will further mimic real trees and act as kidneys and lungs for the city—providing clean air and clean water.  By day, visitors can walk through the ersatz trees on a walkway (perhaps to eat at a café on top of the largest), and, at night, the trees are the setting of a dazzling light show.  Of course, the question remains: why didn’t Singapore use real trees?  It seems the nation is extremely determined to make itself into an arcology—an artificial superstructure designed to support immense numbers of humans.  Rebuilding natural ecosystems to be part of this great machine-city is a necessary step.  I wonder when they will go ahead and just build a dome over the place.

IMG_7708article-2009458-0CC8865600000578-349_964x641Supertrees-in-the-Rain

An astronomy story has made big news headlines this week.  Usually most people are not unduly interested in the happenings in the heavens (either because such events are difficult to comprehend, or because they are regarded as remote to human interests), however this story does directly involve matters which humans take great interest in. gold-bar Scientists and theorists working for the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysicists have announced a spectacular new theory concerning the origin of gold (and other heavy elements like platinum and uranium): the cosmologists believe that the heaviest natural elements are created when two neutron stars collide or when a neutron star collides with a black hole (here is an easy summary of neutron stars, extremely tiny supernova remnants with a mass greater than the sun).  Elements as complicated as iron are manufactured by normal stars in the course of their lifetime, however the creation of heavier elements is more mysterious.  Until now, chemists and physicists had imagined that gold, platinum, uranium, and what have you, come from supernovae—however computer models of various types of supernova events did not supporting that conjecture. The scientists at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysicists based their hypothesis partly on the massive gamma radiation burst detected on June 3rd, 2013 from 3.9 billion light years away in a galaxy located in the constellation Leo.  Gamma ray bursts tend to be associated with hypernovae/supernovae caused by the collapse of super-giant stars, but the June 3rd burst was different.  In certain rare circumstances, two neutron stars are in a binary system together.  Over time, the orbits decay and the stars come together in a cataclysmic event which releases energy tantamount to that of a supernova.    Based on the unusual exotic energy signatures of the June 3rd gamma ray burst,  it seems that scientists caught a rare peek at such an event.

Neutron Star Collision

Neutron Star Collision

I will confess that I am having trouble imagining two objects the size of small cities (yet each with a mass greater than the sun) slamming into each other at astronomical speeds.  Apparently such events only happen every 100,000 years or so in a galaxy the size of the Milky Way.  When the neutron stars come together, a black hole is ripped in the fabric of spacetime.  Huge parts of the neutron stars fall into the black hole and vanish from this universe, but other portions of the neutron stars (which, as the name hints, are made up largely of neutrons) are jettisoned into space.  Edo Berger, one of the astrophysicists who authored the new theory described the process with an earthy metaphor, saying, “several exciting things happen very quickly…. Most of the material collapses to form a black hole. Some of it is spewed into space. That material is rich in neutrons, which drives the formation of heavier and heavier elements, the way mud piles up on an off-road vehicle.” neutcol The gold, platinum, and heavy elements are created in astonishing mass (like many earths made entirely of gold).  The elements are diffused through the cosmos and become part of newly forming star systems. Gold is strange stuff anyway.  The gold present on Earth during its nebular formation is believed to have sunk deep into the center of planet’s molten core where it is inaccessible.  All the gold that rappers and kings wear (and that Ron Paul and draugers hoard) first began falling to Earth 200 million years after the planet’s final formation on asteroids.  The great gold strikes are well named: gold on the surface of Earth is there because of meteor strikes (although billions of years of geology have buried and twisted and hidden these cosmic remnants).

Yeehaw! There's asteroid fragments!

Yeehaw! There’s asteroid fragments!

Sochi, Russia

Sochi, Russia

The 2014 Winter Olympics will be held in Sochi, Russia which is a city on the Black Sea near the Georgia border.   The games will be the first winter games to feature medals competitions in “Slopestyle” snowboard and skiing as well as snowboard parallel slalom.

Parallel Snowboard Slalom

Parallel Snowboard Slalom

Of course the real competitions have already been held: namely the insane International competition to host the Olympics (which came down to a choice between Sochi, Salzburg, and Pyeongchang) and, more importantly, the competition to choose the official Olympic mascots.   You will no doubt recall that the 2012 summer Olympics mascots were “Wenlock and Mandeville”, two cyclopean alien robot monsters.

Wenlock and Mandeville

Wenlock and Mandeville (sigh)

In an attempt to end up with less appalling mascots, Russia turned to the time honored Russian solution of…democracy (?).  Wow! The world really is changing.  A list of vetted candidates was drawn up and submitted to the public for consideration.  Some of the shortlisted design ideas included Matryoshka dolls, Dolphins, Bullfinches, snow leopards, hares, bears, a tiny anthropomorphized sun, and Ded Moroz (the Russian “Father Frost” who acts as Santa).

The shortlist of 2014 Olympic mascot candidates

The shortlist of 2014 Olympic mascot candidates

Zoich, the counter culture mascot of the 2014 Olympics

Zoich, the counter culture mascot of the 2014 Olympics

Zoich, the anti-establishment furry crowned toad (who was modeled after Futurama’s hypnotoad) was quietly omitted from the final list of candidates as was Ded Moroz, when it was discovered that, if he won, he would become the intellectual property of the International Olympic Committee.

Sorry Ded, you must belong to the children of Russia

Sorry Ded, you already belong to the children of Russia

A telephone voting competition was held between the final mascot candidates and the three winners (the snow leopard, hare, and bear) became the official Olympic mascots.  Unfortunately the election was tainted with scandal when Russia’s elected leader and perennial strongman, Vladimir Putin announced that his favorite candidate was the snow leopard.  Subsequent to this proclamation, an immense number of phonecalls were immediately tallied for the snow leopard, which has led to charges of vote-rigging (so maybe the world hasn’t changed so much after all).

The winners

The winners

The designer of the 1980 Moscow Games mascot Misha (a bear which nobody saw because of the U.S. boycott) has accused the designer of the Sochi bear mascot of plagiarizing his bear expression.  Certain political groups have also darkly hinted that the bear was chosen because it resembles the mascot of the United Russia political party (which is the dominant force in Russian politics).

The Sochi 2014 mascot bear, Misha, the 1980 mascot bear, and the United Russia bear

The Sochi 2014 mascot bear, Misha, the 1980 mascot bear, and the United Russia bear

So it seems only the snow hare and the Paralympic mascots (a snowflake girl and fireboy) are untainted by controversy.  I dislike admitting it, but to my eye, Putin was right and the snow leopard, although not native to Sochi, is the most compelling figure.  They are all pretty cute, so maybe this whole democracy thing actually works (despite the ghastly results we have been getting lately in America).

Better than Congress!

Better than Congress by a lot!

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