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Here is one of the world’s rarest and strangest fish, the golden cave catfish (Clarias cavernicola) which can be found only one place on Earth, the Algamas/Dragonsbreath cave in the Namib Desert.  This incredible cavern is 100 meters (300 feet) beneath the desert and it holds the world’s largest known underground lake (discounting all subglacial lakes—which can be huge).  Above ground is an arid desert wasteland, but in cave is a huge lake where unfathomed waters may descend another 100 meters into the Earth.  Since only a narrow chasm opens to the sky, the lake has a very limited ecosystem built around whatever falls into this chasm (which was only discovered by science in 1986).  These blind ascetic catfish dwell on such scraps and on the white shrimp and strange aquatic worms which live in the water beneath the desert.  Though they have lost their eyes, their other senses have become extremely acute in order to find every bug or speck of nutrient which falls into the hidden lake.  Additionally, these small (16 cm/6 inch) fish have a limited ability to sip air–so that they can better survive the still and anaerobic depths of their hidden lake. The entire species may only consist of a few hundred (or thousand) individuals.

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One of the great classical forms of Chinese porcelain is the Lonquan ewer. These green-glazed wine vessels are named for the the Longquan kiln complex in (what is now the) Zhejiang province of South China. The ewers originated in the Song dynasty and the form was characteristic up until the Ming dynasty—but perhaps the heyday of Lonquan ware was during the Yuan dynasty when Mongols ruled China. I suspect most (or all) of these examples are from the Yuan dynasty. Look at the beautiful pear form of the vessels and the sinuous grace of the handles.

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I enjoy putting up pictures of amazing historical crowns glittering in heavily guarded vaults in countries which are now democracies, yet the crowns which have disappeared are often more interesting even to the point of being allegorical. An example of this is the crown of George XII of Georgia. His highly traditional arched crown of red velvet, gold, and jewels looked like the crown from a high school play or on a corporate logo. It was manufactured by were promptly manufactured by the artist Pierre Etienne Theremin and the goldsmith Nathanael Gottlob Licht in St. Petersburg. The crown was made in 1798 and, when George XII died in 1800 the crown (and Georgia) were duly annexed by Paul I and Alexander I. The crown was kept in the Kremlin until the communist revolution. After the communists took full control of the country, the crown was returned to Georgia in 1923. Unfortunately, it was an age of exigency, and the communist leaders of Georgia decided to “use” the crown in 1930 (whereupon it disappears entirely from history). The two equally likely fates of the crown are both interesting in a choose-your-own adventure sort of approach to political hegemony. In one scenario, the crown was broken up by the Georgian communists and the constituent gold and jewels were sold (or purloined). In an equally plausible fate for the crown, it was sold to super-rich oil titan Henri Deterding, the erstwhile head of Royal Dutch Shell. If this latter case is true, the crown could still be in the private collection of some super-rich collector, who has no need to advertise the fact he has the crown (or possibly doesn’t even know what it is). I wonder which of these possible fates befell the crown…or did something altogether different happen? Anyway, if you happen to have it in a box in your attic, you should call somebody, it may be worth something and I bet the Georgians would love to have it back.

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Here I am with the geese on my parents’ farm. If you are wondering about all the selfies this week (which perhaps you aren’t–since this the 21st century) the reason is not (just) vanity but also the fact that the camera on the front of my phone is cracked but the one in the other side is still fine…although I don’t really have blue melange eyes like in Dune. Anyway here are the pilgrim geese and here too is LG the enigmatic Canada goose. If you look at the picture below, you will see some alpacas in the background…those guys are pretty interesting: we’ll talk abot them soon!
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I hope you will accept my apologies for last week’s thin posts. I am on holiday for a fortnight. This week I am at my parents’farm in the Ohio Valley, and, although it is exceedingly lovely out here, inteenet is exiguous, at best. I don’t want you to think I have abandoned you though, and so I am going to post some pictures from the farmstead throughout the week. The first is me with Rory, my parents’ new standard poodle puppy. Poodles may have a fancy reputation, but he has been jumping in the pond, runningin the forest, and doing all sorts of farm dog things (although he is also super sweet). In fact, he is probably up to mischief RIGHT NOW…so I am going to go play with him some more. I’ll post some more from the fields and bosky sells tomorrow!
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This Friday September 15th is the final day of the astounding Cassini mission. The robotic space probe just took a final picture of Titan (which was arguably the site of the mission’s most breathtaking discoveries) and now the little spacecraft turns towards Saturn’s north pole and the grand finale…a plunge into the crushing atmosphere of the gas giant planet. A joint effort between NASA and the Italian space agency, Cassini launched in 1997 (the year I came to New York) and for 20 years it has sailed the solar system. In 2004, the craft reached Saturn and it has been discovering moons, taking pictures, and otherwise exploring the system ever since. Cassini even launched a lander to the surface of Titan, a super moon with a thick atmosphere and methane oceans.
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All good things must end though, and Cassini is out of fuel. Mission scientists did not wish to leave the craft orbiting for thousands of years and they also hoped to get a last trove of data (and jolt of publicity) from the mission…so the controllers opted to fly Cassini straight into the planet to learn whatever they can before the minivan sized probe blows apart and/or is crushed. Sadly there is no camera to record this melodramatic demise (which the denizens of Earth will want to see) so I have created my own rendition of the craft’s final descent using the magic of art (image at top). Since Saturn does not have an oxidizing atmosphere (probably?) and Cassini does not talk (probably?) I took a few artistic liberties, however I think I got the great hexagonal storm on the gas giant pretty well and I also captured some of the endearing personality of an astonishing robot explorer which will be dearly missed.
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We have “dark” (Yummmm!!) we have “milk” (yumm!) and we have the cloying travesty that is “white”(ummm…I guess this is for people who like the idea of chocolate but who don’t like the delicious flavor, the robust color, or the pleasant texture)… and thus has it been for many lives of men. But now, a marketing company has crafted a whole new hue/variety of chocolate “ruby” which is a sort of sad etiolated reddish color. An honest colorist would probably call it “sickly pink”.
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Allegedly, ruby chocolate is made from a whole new cultivar of cacao plant. These ruby beans have been grown secretly in Ecuador, Brazil, and Cote D’Ivoire by mad German scientists in silent service to Callebaut (the chocolate maker which I have also never heard of until their effort garnered a bunch of attention from the media). All chocolate lovers are going to have to try this overpriced weird looking stuff (just in case) but it is highly probable we will quickly discover that it is a worthless marketing stunt (like most things in our oversaturated oversold era). Here is a very funny article from the NYTimes which skewers the inane language of this novelty chocolatier.
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This is all good fun, but it brings up a bigger question about why humankind is so profoundly susceptible to novelty. We know what is good and what works well, but we will happily trade it all for a quick-tongued peddler’s dodgy-looking magic beans (literally, in this ruby bean chocolate case…but figuratively in art, politics, culture and all sorts of other venues). I guess this is ok and is all part of humankind’s desperate tragic fire-wielding ascendancy: you don’t go from pathetic leopard-fodder hominid to planet girdling superorganism in a mere 100,000 years without trying a lot of new coke and diving dolphins. Yet I can also see why venerable people start to roll their eyes at the pop-stars, computer apps, and cronuts which culture lavishly fawns upon and then instantly forgets. There are a lot of pinkish beans and not may rubies…
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[The role of the greedy simpleton will be played by, um, everyone]

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Part of an ancient Roman town was just discovered off of the coast of Tunisia. The city of Neapolis in Roman North Africa was a major center for fishing. The town then prepared and exported the famous fermented fish sauce “garum” (which was the premier condiment of the ancient world) and salted preserved fish. Neapolis was a sort of cannery of the classical world and the underwater discoveries of an era inundated by a tsunami in the fourth century have confirmed the town’s specialty. Marine archaeologists working in the Mediterranean have discovered more than a hundred stone tanks for preparing the piquant sauce.
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I wonder what the place that makes Heinz ketchup will look like in two thousand years.

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I have been wanting to write about a troubling news story from the summer, but every time I start, I get frustrated by the shortsighted selfishness which has overtaken our culture. Sometimes it seems like the very fate of our society and our planet is writ in this regional fishing controversy. Naturally it is a story about flounder—more specifically, the summer fluke, (Paralichthys dentatus). These fish are beloved by commercial and recreational fishermen who catch millions of pounds of the flatfish between Maine and the Carolinas.

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Unfortunately, the ever-growing hordes of fishermen have grown too numerous and rapacious for the poor flounder to replenish themselves. The summer fluke fishery on the East Coast of the United States has been collapsing this summer (2017). The Greater Atlantic Regional Fisheries Office “has determined that fluke are being overfished, with an estimated population that is 42 percent below the level regulators consider to be sustainable.” To keep the flounder alive for future generations of anglers, the Greater Atlantic Regional Fisheries Office imposed new restrictions on how many fish can be caught and killed.
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Here is where the story takes a peculiar turn. Wilbur Louis Ross Junior “The King of Bankruptcy” is a billionaire banker and vulture capitalist. When Donald Trump’s casinos went bankrupt due to mismanagement, overspending, and bad deals, Ross stepped in to restructure the casinos, bail out Trump, and dump the bad debt onto others. This has had a lot of consequences, but one of them is that Ross is now the United States Secretary of Commerce.

When New Jersey’s charter captains, commercial fishermen, and sundry interested parties who make a living off flounder, heard about this year’s reduced catch limits, they wrote up a counter-proposal (which involved catching a lot more fish than recommended)—and they presented this plan directly to the Secretary of Commerce (who is originally from New Jersey and has some of his palatial mansions and nine figure art collection there).

Naturally Wilbur Louis Ross Junior could not care less about the fate of a species of fish. He happily overrode the catch limitations on summer fluke. After all it makes fishermen happy and who cares about the opinion of NOAA scientists? Indeed, the NOAA is a division of the Commerce Department and it turns out that its real purpose is not to understand the ocean and the atmosphere but to make people like Ross much richer. He is probably out there somewhere right now tenting his fingers and saying “exxxxcelllent!”
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[Here he is marveling at how the subjects of the Saudi king do not dare to protest because they are beautifully afraid]

If only New Jersey and its reckless and uncaring anglers flout the rules and fish their stocks to extinction, summer fluke on the East Coast can probably still rebound, however Ross’ cavalier disregard for the ordinary procedure of fisheries limits and his inability to care about (or understand) the scientists’ rationale for fishing limits raises the all-too-real possibility that other state and national fisheries will no longer be bound by evidence-based rules.

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I suspect many people will regard the summer fluke as an immaterial victim of the corruption which is a more and more the principal feature of American business and politics, yet the flatfish is a keystone species which is located between the small prey and the large predators (I sort of look at them as the middle class of the ocean). Wilbur Louis Ross Junior was born in the thirties. What does he care if one of the dominant species of teleosts in our part of the Atlantic is overfished to the point of vanishing? Yet one would think that the watermen who live in tandem with these flounder and have made their lives off the lives of the fish might care somewhat whether the species lives or dies. I guess that is wrong though. There is a reason Wilbur Ross, The Bankruptcy King” is rich beyond reckoning. He knows how far people will go (way too far) and he knows how to exploit that for himself. I wonder what other decisions will come from the Commerce Department.

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In the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, we are all worried about the residents of Houston and the Galveston Gulf Coast. Hurricanes and flooding are a deadly serious matter and my heart goes out to everyone dealing with loss or damage caused by the disaster. As Houston residents and first responders worked together to survive and mitigate the floodwaters with boats, pumps, sandbags, and evacuations, they were treated to the (horrible) spectacle of a very different group of social animals responding to the crisis with a different group strategy.

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Red fire ants (Solenopsis invicta) are a tough species of stinging fire ants from South America. Like humankind they are invasive generalists which can survive anything and have quickly spread worldwide because of their hardy resilience and various ingenious group strategies. I have been meaning to blog about them because they are a sort of alien red mirror of humanity (and I have been trying to get back to writing about superorganisms and the question of what constitutes an organism anyway). Because of the hurricane, the fire ants have injected themselves into the news cycle, so I am going to mention their flood strategy now and we can return to write about their other interesting behaviors.
Fire ant bodies are waxy and light. They float! But they would all be drowned or swept apart in a serious flooding event (and a single ant separated from the group is effectively dead). Thus when the fire ants sense rising waters they group together in a ball and tightly cling to each other. These living rafts of clamped together ants can float for many days.
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If you are in a flooded area and a ball of furious stinging ants floats by you, entomologists and fire ant experts recommend that you not molest it. Like Voltron, the ants can break apart into autonomous fighting units before reforming. Ants do not breathe like people and they drown sort of gradually. We will leave the ants alone and concentrate on human group strategies for getting through crises.

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