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Many people complain that the news is all bad.  That is not true at all, but good news is sometimes harder to quantify or follow than bad tidings—plus human progress tends to be incremental.  I bring this up because this week did feature a good news story—and Ferrebeekeeper has been following along (as best we can) for years. The nuclear scientists at the National Ignition Facility (a part of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory) have been attempting to use a vast laser array to heat/compress a deuterium and tritium fuel pellet to the extreme conditions necessary for nuclear fusion.

The container for the nuclear fuel

The container for the nuclear fuel

Nuclear fusion involves compressing/heating the elementary particles which make up atoms until the atoms fuse into new atoms.  Such a process releases outrageous amounts of energy but it does not start easily–indeed so much energy is required to begin the reaction that “hot” fusion typically requires a star or a nuclear fission detonator.  These items are dangerous and alarming to have lying around so scientists have been attempting to find a more controlled method of fusing atoms together.

The NIF Target Chamber

The NIF Target Chamber

Earlier this week the science journal Nature published a paper which details how NIF scientists finally managed to produce more energy than was initially put into the fuel pellet (albeit not into the overall system).  This does not sound overwhelmingly exciting—yet it is farther than nuclear engineers have got in 50 years.  To quote the amazingly named head scientist, Omar Hurricane, “We’ve assembled that stick of dynamite and we’ve gotten the fuse to light…If we can get that fuse to burn all the way to the dynamite, it’s going to pack a wallop.”

Just dream what we could accomplish with such energy!

Just dream what we could accomplish with such energy!

Abundant safe energy from nuclear fusion would be an astonishingly transformative innovation for humankind.  Immediately our principle economic and environmental problems would be forever altered.  Additionally having such a cosmic wellspring of energy available would allow us to embark on engineering works of a vastly greater scale than any known so far.

Planetary Engineering!

Planetary Engineering!

Okapi (Walton Ford, watercolor on paper)

Okapi (Walton Ford, watercolor on paper)

Walton Ford is a contemporary artist who paints realistic large-scale watercolor paintings of mammals and birds.  The creatures are often placed in anthropomorphic contexts (where they dress or act like people). Because the paintings are so large, the artist tends to annotate them in beautiful copperpoint longhand (although it is a bit hard to see in this example).  In this painting, a shy okapi, the wraith of the African jungle is trying to purloin a piece of honeycomb from a dangerous gun trap.  The okapi’s face is filled with purpose but the ominous fire on the horizon and the hunting paraphernalia in the foreground hints at a dark outcome.

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Detail

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Here in Brooklyn it has already been a long, long winter…and more snow and bitter ice is on its way.  Spring seems like a vanishing dream which recedes further with every day instead of growing closer (as is the proper course of nature’s ancient power).  Would that I were able to visit my felicitous readers in the beguiling south where tropical breezes cajole weary wayfarers with the heavenly scent of orange and gardenia—where winter itself is a whimsical conceit and life is an eternal pleasure garden completely free of care [ed’s note: the writer has not spent very much time in southern latitudes or among tropical people].

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Unfortunately I am presently unable to leave the ice-fastness of my home to travel the happy Azores or frolic in the eternally verdant south.  Even my imagination is beginning to turn cold and cracked. People of past eras likewise missed the summer during long winters.  Unlike us, such bygone generations also lacked Hollywood movies, jet airplanes, and refrigerated trains full of produce—even aristocrats were far more trapped by the winters of yesteryear.

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To keep some of summer’s pleasures with them (and, more practically, to provide a home for tropical fruits and flowers which would never grow in temperate climes), bygone generations kept conservatories, greenhouses, and orangeries.  These splendid glass buildings were heated in the winter.  Such conservatories had a golden age in the18th and 19th centuries, when glass and heating became cheaper, yet international transit infrastructure was not robust enough to provide cheap travel and tropical produce to the masses (or indeed to anyone).

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The favorite architecture for such buildings was ornate gothic–which suited the shape of the iron and glass (and of the taste of the times).   To help my winterbound readers escape the endless arctic storms, I have included a gallery of some of the loveliest gothic greenhouses I could find online.  Sadly the majority of these buildings seem scantly furnished with flowers and fruit, but that means you can imagine them filled with whatever sensuous orchids and sumptuous fruits you would like.  As an added bonus the last few greenhouses are contemporary, so if you have some space you could always add such a miniature gothic greenhouse to your own garden!

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Wild Turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo) in the suburbs and towns

Wild Turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo) in the suburbs and towns

Ferrebeekeeper has always been renowned for its unabashedly pro-turkey policies and stances (we are talking here about the large galliforme bird from North America—not the nation in Asia-Minor).  It is therefore this blog’s duty to look into the rash of negative stories which have recently been circulating through the media about bad behavior from these magnificent birds and see what (if anything) can be determined.

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Apparently wild turkeys have been attacking people across the nation (and messing with our domestic animals and our precious stuff, to boot).  Emboldened by the ever growing size of wild turkey populations (and unaware of the true nature of humans), the birds are taking out their aggressions on churchgoers, children, and even armed officers of the law.  Here is an especially fine collection of “turkey attack” videos gathered together by Gawker.  Slightly more serious articles can be found here and here.

A homeowner attacked by a suburban wild turkey

A homeowner attacked by a suburban wild turkey

The turkey attacks seem to be a result of turkeys coming into suburbia (the wild turkeys of the farmlands and the forests know quite well to fear the fell hand of humankind).  For all their fine qualities, turkeys (like humans) are territorial creatures.  Additionally, like humans, some turkeys are more aggressive or fearless than others. The convenience of factory farming (and humankind’s mastery over domesticated strains of turkeys) has conditioned some suburbanites to think of the birds as fat fluffy simpletons, but the stereotype is far from accurate.  Wild toms can stand 4 feet tall and weigh up to14 kilograms (30 lbs).  The birds have powerful legs with razor-sharp spurs and doughty wings (which spread to six feet).  The scary dinosaurlike quality of some of those gawker clips, illustrates the power, fearlessness, and intelligence of the creatures (which have evolved to be perfectly at home in the woodlands, plains, and swamps of America).

A wild turkey on a car in Burlington

A wild turkey on a car in Burlington

The suburbs are lacking the predators which traditionally hunted wild turkeys and they are likewise lacking the human hunters who nearly drove the birds to extinction.  Turkeys meet non-threatening suburbanites and then began to regard people as fellow turkeys.  Unfortunately, wild turkey society is much like corporate America and involves lots of one-upsmanship, dominance displays, and outright threats (all so that dominant turkeys can rise to the top and obtain preferential mates and resources).  If you are attacked by wild turkeys you need to threaten them back and overmatch their displays with over-the-top sounds and movements. Do not feed wild turkeys!  Wild turkeys can see colors and they have a particular dislike for red (which plays an important part in their mating rituals and contests).  All of these turkey misunderstandings have happened because turkeys have accidentally assumed that we are the same as them (and we have sometimes assumed they are the same as us).  Turkeys and humans are indeed very much alike: both species are clever, territorial, aggressive, bipedal, and omnivorous. In terms of sheer vindictive murderousness and cunning, however, humans vastly outstrip the birds.  Please remember that if wild turkeys begin to play their mind games with you.

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Say what you like about Putin and the Russians, but these are the best balloons ever!

Say what you like about Putin and the Russians, but these are the best balloons ever!

The Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia have commenced! Now I love the Olympics in all their forms, but, sadly, I have no strengths at winter sports (unless you count hilariously falling down on icy surfaces as a strength—in which case I am the comic equal of any silent movie star).  Because of my lack of knowledge about sliding down icy mountains on sticks, I have been trying to find something to write about the Sochi games which does not involve winter sports.

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Fortunately the history of Sochi is quite interesting (albeit somewhat dark).  After being a contested territory during the Russo-Turkish War (1828–1829), the Crimean War of 1853–1856, and the long-lasting Russian Circassian War of 1817–1864, the Sochi area was somewhat…denuded of local population.  In 1866, the Tsar’s government pronounced a decree was promoting relocation and colonization of Russians to Sochi.  But what would these peasant farmers do for a living in the strange semi-tropical mountains by the Black Sea Coast?

Tea Plantations of Sochi

Tea Plantations of Sochi

The solution arrived in the early 1900s when a Ukrainian peasant farmer named Judas Antonovich Koshman introduced a new strain of tea to Sochi.  Tea was then the most popular (non-alcoholic) beverage in Russia, but its cost was prohibitively high.  A series of tea plantations had been planted in the Sochi area during the 1870s and 1880s but they had all failed because of the cold (or they produced bitter disappointing harvests).  Koshman’s tea, however, was different: the plants were more tolerant of the cold and they had a rich unique flavor which appealed to the Russian palate.  And thus the great tea plantations of the Black Sea came into being.  Throughout the tumult of World War I, the Soviet Revolution, Stalinism, World War II, the Cold War, and the painful birth of modern Russia, the tea has grown along the foothills of the Caucasus Mountains in scenes reminiscent of Assam.  Krasnodar tea is one of the world’s northernmost varieties of tea.  It is said to have a pleasant fragrance and an appealing tart flavor.  It also contains a very high level of caffeine so that Russian tea parties stay lively and awake around the Samovar!

Family Portrait (T. Myagkov)

Family Portrait (T. Myagkov)

Rock Ptarmigan (Lagopus muta) by Ólafur Larsen

Rock Ptarmigan (Lagopus muta) by Ólafur Larsen

The Rock Ptarmigan (Lagopus muta) is an Arctic gamebird from the grouse family. It lives in northern regions of Scotland, Scandinavia, Iceland, Greenland, Canada, Alaska, Russia, and China.  The birds are capable of surviving in extremely harsh winter conditions: indeed they do not fly south during the Arctic winter.  Instead they hunker down to last out the 24 hour long nights of bitter ice and cold.  In order to survive in permafrost landscapes, ptarmigans have water and wind proof feathers (which seal the chilling moisture away from their insulating down).  They also have feathered feet which act like snowshoes—their taxonomical name “Lagopus” comes from Greek roots meaning “hare foot”).  Ptarmigans are omnivores and they eat insects, seeds, berries, and leaves during the fleeting summers.  More remarkably, during the brutal winter months they can find food in the form of catkins, twigs, and buds buried beneath the snow and ice.

Rock Ptarmigan (Lagopus muta)

Rock Ptarmigan (Lagopus muta)

Not only are ptarmigans adapted to the cold, they are also astonishing masters of camouflage.  In winter they can fledge to become completely white.  In spring and fall the birds are white with black and gray blotches.  During the summer, the birds’ plumage becomes brown and yellow so they can blend in with the gorse and lichen. The following two pictures of brooding mothers should illustrate this point: the mama ptarmigans are hard to find even though they are pretty much the only things in the pictures!

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In spring male ptarmigans find a mate by emitting a guttural croak (although there is also a correlation between the size of a male’s comb and his testosterone level).  Females lay up to six eggs. Even in the egg, ptarmigans are masters of being inconspicuous.  Their eggs are stippled with spots and specks in order to blend in seamlessly with the rocks and tundra for the brief moments that ptarmigans are not sitting their nests.

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During the last ice age, the rock ptarmigan had an even wider range (which is astonishing, considering how widespread the birds are today).  Ptarmigans are a beautiful and timeless emblem of the north. Vikings carved the birds on knife hilts and the creatures are also a mainstay of Sami and Inuit art.

A bronze ptarmigan charm made by the Sami

A bronze ptarmigan charm made by the Sami

In previous posts I have written about the great German romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich who came to prominence and fame at the beginning of the nineteenth century.  Unfortunately for Friedrich, art is fickle.  As he approached his middle years, the melancholy and dramatic realism which was his specialty fell out of fashion.  His patrons abandoned him and his art became even more bleak and pessimistic (which did nothing to help his sales). Although fashion abandoned Friedrich, his genius did not desert him: his works became more somber and metaphysical, but their lonely beauty and solemn majesty also became more pronounced.

The Oaktree in the Snow (Caspar David Friedrich, 1829, oil on canvas)

The Oaktree in the Snow (Caspar David Friedrich, 1829, oil on canvas)

Here is a picture from 1829 of a denuded oak tree standing alone in the snow.  Although leafless and broken the tree is still magnificent.  The artist has painted the dark tree looming up into an indifferent sky above the viewer.  The desolate winter landscape accentuates the bare branches and gnarled trunk of the tree which seems to strive against the cold grasp of winter–and even against time itself.   There is a paradox to this work: the very emptiness and plainness of the composition awakens an imagined spring within the heart of anyone looking at the picture.  Sadly, for Friedrich, spring was never to come again: his work did not regain its popularity in his life (and a stroke in 1835 robbed him of his ability to paint with oils). Yet The Oaktree in the Snow is a triumph—a fully realized painting of existential complexity in the simplest and boldest of compositions.

Supay Harvesting Souls (Oliver Akuin, ca. 2000-2010, ink on paper)

Supay Harvesting Souls (Oliver Akuin, ca. 2000-2010, ink on paper)

One of the biggest problems in writing about deities of the underworld is their unseemly tendency to morph into each other. For example take the Incan deity Supay.  Supay started out strong, as the god of death for all Incan people.  Not only did he personify the terrifying enigma of mortality, he was also the supreme ruler of the Ukhu Pacha, the afterlife/underworld—plus, as a special bonus, he ruled a race of demons.  Yes, things were looking pretty good for old Supay, until suddenly in the sixteenth century, Francisco Pizarro showed up.  As smallpox and the Spaniards destroyed the Incan empire (and left the landscape littered with piles of corpses) Supay the death god had one last magnificent fling–but within a few short decades, Spanish control over Peru was absolute.

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This could have been the end of Supay—gods often die out when the cultures that created them are assimilated.  Yet Supay lived on in the daily lives of indigenous Peruvians.  As the Catholic Church became the dominant religious institution of Peru, Supay became entwined with the Devil.  Supay’s horns, claws, and demon hordes already greatly resembled the Christian idea of how Satan should look. Supay’s underworld realm, Uku Pacha, had been closely associated with agrarian customs of breaking new ground and tilling the earth to plant potatoes,  The Spaniards brought intensive underground mining—and Supay’s rituals became associated with the dangers of tunneling and delving.  Catholic missionaries encouraged the conflation of Supay and Satan in order to consolidate their hold on Native Americans and Mestizos.

A Peruvian Miner with A Supay Votive Statue

A Bolivian Miner with A Supay Votive Statue

If anyone else suddenly, you know, merged into Satan, it would probably be a big problem! Yet Supay has made the transition with aplomb.  Even today, the Peruvian image of Satan owes a great deal to the older underworld god, and Supay worship is still alive and well among miners and excavators!

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