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What is the most powerful force in human affairs?  Most people would probably assert that love is paramount.  Compassion for one’s mate, one’s family, or one’s fellow beings is sublime, and love certainly always takes precedence over baser motives…in art, literature and music.  Compelling arguments can be made that pursuit of status is the most important thing (I suppose this includes ambition, greed, pride, and fame-seeking in all of their guises, good and ill).  An idealist would say the pursuit of wisdom is our greatest drive:  it is only through wisdom that we understand the world and collectively move upwards (or, indeed, know anything at all).  Cynics might say that the pursuit of pleasure motivates people.  Religion, with its false certainties and self-serving rules could also conceivably be named as the prime motivator of our social species (probably by some priest in a silk robe riding a palanquin weighed down with gold).

Unfortunately, these are all wrong.  The greatest force of human affairs is fear.  Any felon or dictator (or middle manager) knows the fastest way to make people behave a certain way is to credibly threaten them. Fear also lies beneath all the other drives listed above. Even when people are motivated by love, it is their fear of losing love (or never finding it) which makes them act.  To motivate a parent, tell them their children are in danger! Economists tell us that the pain of losing a thing is more intense than the pleasure of attaining it (and I believe them). But superseding any of that, fear is a fundamental constituent part of all of us.  Terror and anxiety are hardwired into us by evolution.  An animal which doesn’t watch out for predators, traps, and adversaries is soon dead.

I will tell you another reason I say this.  I am afraid.  I am afraid to even write this terrible truth. When I was a child I lay awake, unable to sleep because I was afraid that God would send me to hell for some infraction.  When I finally realized that there are no deities except for the ones we imagine, I became afraid of death which brings an eternity of utter oblivion.  I was afraid that nuclear war would burn away our civilization and leave the last survivors to die rotting and screaming of radiation-poisoning.  I was too nervous to talk to girls.  I hid in books and even they made me afraid. In sleep I was tormented by nightmares.  The only time I haven’t been afraid was when I was drunk.  So I drank as deeply as I could.  Then one day I became even more afraid (rightly) that drink was dragging me to my grave and robbing me of myself.  Our fears are not necessarily wrong or false—but feeding them by indulging them…or trying to run from them…it only makes them worse.

I have told you that fear is the main motivator of folk (of all our fellow animals, actually). It has saved us time and again…it is how our forbears survived this world of fangs, traps, spears, Assyrians, and mustard gas in order to reproduce. But it is a terrible weakness too. Politicians and the press know this better than anyone.  Listen to the speeches.  The main point is generally that you will be gunned down by madmen or outdone by foreign competitors if you don’t follow a certain leader.  Watch TV and look at how the ads manipulate you to buy snake oil and salad shooters by invoking your fear of cancer, old age, or other people.  The news today is instructive.  One group of politicians says “if you don’t carry a gun, you will be gunned down by a madman and the other side wants to ban guns!” the other side says “only if we ban guns, will we not be gunned down by madmen” and on and on they go, in a circle, about every subject.  It is driving us all crazy and reducing us to sad, angry tribes of wretched cowards.

This is just terrible! No wonder the authoritarians are creeping back and the quacks and con-men do such boom business.

There is only one recourse.  I am sure you know what I am going to say…but my point is a paradox, so I will say it with a tale ripped from popular literature. Did you read ‘A Game of Thrones”?  It is the story of an execution and its aftermath. The first scene foreshadows this, and has the best moment of all of the novels.  A group of conscripts and draftees are attacked and slaughtered by unstoppable monsters.  The terrified survivors of this attack run away and are subsequently caught by the authorities (the main characters!) who put the deserters to death.  The beheading is seen through the eyes of a child who is watching his father act as executioner.   Afterwards the child, Bran, is confused.  His foster brother said that the condemned man was afraid when died, but his other brother said the prisoner was brave and died well:

“What do you think?” his father asked. Bran thought about it.

“Can a man still be brave if he’s afraid?”

“That is the only time a man can be brave,” his father told him.

Only when you are afraid can you be brave.  Only through such bravery can you avoid being ruled by fear. The theme is echoed later on as the protagonists’ fortunes falter and their little sister is lost in the midst of a brutal civil war.  To make her way through this terrifying world of armed goons and psychopaths with knives, she repeats a mantra again and again.  “Fear cuts deeper than swords.” It allows her to keep her wits when others freeze. It lets her do things she would be afraid to do otherwise.

“Fear cuts deeper than swords.” It is a platitude from a dime-store fiction (and a metaphor–don’t test it at home!), but it embodies a critical truth.  Winston Churchill said it as “Courage is rightly esteemed the first of human qualities because it has been said, it is the quality which guarantees all others.”

On this side of the ocean, our one life dictator (so far) said the same thing in his first inaugural address to nation terrified of the Great Depression “The Only Thing We Have to Fear Is Fear Itself.” I am saying this to everyone, but most of all to my fellow citizens.  We need to remember FDR’s words again and again. In our world of seething change and garbage content which indulges facile drives, these words are as true as they were back when World War II bore down on all of us.

We MUST change.  We must look long and deep at whatever scary thing the clickbait article says and then think instead of just feeling. We must listen to our cowardly leaders carefully…and then we have to ignore our instinctual emotions and repeat  “Fear cuts deeper than swords.”  Look at what I am saying right now (it’s scary stuff) and then repeat this mantra. Embrace your fear and understand it…and then do what is right instead of what makes you less fearful. “Fear cuts deeper than swords.” Repeat it when grasping old cravens on a screen tell you to give in to fear and submit to them.  Otherwise we will not live in the land of the free and the home of the brave.  We will instead be in the land of the fear, the home of the slave.

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My family is from West Virginian and I have some relatives back home who are fierce red partisans who ardently believe that fascist mismanagement of our country by the executive branch will restore some imagined golden age (I, on the other hand, think that America’s leadership crisis is dangerous and will, at best, make the future dimmer and more difficult… but we’ll talk about that closer to the midterms).  At any rate, on a vexing Facebook feed from the Mountain State, I spotted this meme, which is meant to counter the idea that politicians are beholden to financial contributions from the gun lobby.  Ripped straight from the frothing mouth of social media, here is a list of the top 50 lobbying spenders:

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These numbers are worth talking about on two levels.  First, although this list doesn’t explain much about NRA contributions to candidates (why! they’re not even on the top 50 list!), it shines a rather disconcerting light on why American healthcare costs more than twice as much as it does in other developed nations. Health outcomes from our system are not nearly as good as they are in, say, Chile or Slovenia, and life expectancy in the United States is falling, yet it seems like pharmaceutical and insurance companies have at least found something to throw money at!  This differently organized chart of direct political donations by industry over the last 20 years makes this point even more dynamically:

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There are some other unpalatable truths in there, as well, if you are in the mood to find out why net neutrality got binned or our national transportation policy is a mess.

However, both of these charts are misleading when it comes to the gun lobby, which brings us to our second point. Here is a rather more accurate breakdown of NRA spending.

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The red and pink parts are what shows up in the earlier charts.  That yellow portion of the pie is “outside spending”.  This money does not directly support candidates, instead it is used to attack opposing candidates who propose gun legislation.  These ads tend to come from “Americans for safe homes” or suchlike anodyne organizations which are funded by the NRA’s “Political Victory Fund” (or they can come straight from the NRA which likes to have member, after all).

I suppose if my libertarian cousin were reading this, he would angrily retort “Yeah! But what about the outside spending by insurance companies, pharmaceutical firms, and trial lawyers? What is that like?”  I have no answers (and I am tired of looking at charts), but that really IS an excellent question.  Here is another one: how are we supposed to have a democracy when figuring out who is paying for different sorts of political outreach is like figuring out Chinese shell companies?  (as a side note, if you invested a lot of money in Chinese public companies, you may wish to look more closely at the control of such entities).

I grew up in the country and I actually sort of like guns, although they have no place here in Brooklyn (there’s some smug coastal NIMBYism for you).  Unfortunately, the glowing fantasy of power and control they provided is evaporating as I get older (plus, the fact that I go through life unarmed makes the notion that a gun would help me an even greater stretch).  We’ll get back to America’s relationship with guns and power later this week, right now though, looking at these charts is making me feel even more powerless.  I have no MONEY.  How is one to make one’s point to the world in such circumstances?  A bunch of dull charts about how giant nebulous lobbying groups are misleading us with dark funds?

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Exciting news from the world of mollusk research! Scientists have discovered new insights into how cuttlefish blend in so seamlessly with their underwater world.  Cuttlefish are chameleons of the undersea realm: they have the ability to change their color and texture in order to blend in with seaweed, coral, the ocean floor or whatever habitat they encounter.  Yet, even more remarkably, they can mimic the rough coloration and shape of other organisms, thereby fooling predators and prey by mimicking crabs and fish.

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Cuttlefish copy the textures they find in their environment by means of small nodules known as papillae.  The cephalopods extend and retract these intricate bumps using muscles. They can become perfectly smooth in order to maximize their speed and maneuverability or they can take on the texture of rocks, coral, or even seaweed.  Scientists have discovered that the cuttlefish accomplishes this not by means of continuous concentration, but instead with muscles which can be locked in place by means of certain neurotransmitters (it pays not to contemplate the vivisection through which this knowledge was obtained).  If a cuttlefish takes on a certain texture and then promptly loses use of the relevant muscle nerve, the neurotransmitters remain active and it takes hours for the creature’s metabolism to return it to its neutral shape.

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This may seem like a minor insight, but learning that cuttlefish (and presumably the squids and octopuses which use the same sort of papillae to alter their texture) are utilizing a muscle trick which is not unlike mechanism by which clams lock their shells in place is another step in unlocking the mysteries of these remarkable tentacled masters of disguise.

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I, um, got sucked into the epic women’s ice skating contest at the Olympics, and just noticed it was late, so I am just going to post my latest little drawing of a flounder here and remind you to check out my Instagram page.  This is a great tusked behemoth flounder of appetite wandering a world of appetite, cheap meat, and those little elves that bake cookies.  Vultures soar over the lumbering creature hoping a carcass will appear in its wake.  Also there is an artichoke (a delicious edible thistle/vegetable).  We’ll get back to some proper posts next week, but this enigmatic creature is not without a certain comic grandeur.

 

I am greatly enjoying watching the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea…although thus far I am a bit underwhelmed by the United States performance overall.  Is our precipitous national decline already reflected in international sports, or are the Norwegians, Austrians, Canadians, and other hearty winter folk just having a good Olympics?  Only time will tell.

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At any rate, to celebrate the Korean Olympics (and put the ups-and-downs of history in perspective) I would like to feature a great treasure of South Korea in today’s post.  This is the gold crown of Seobongchong Tumulus, a spectacular gold Silla crown now housed at the Gyeongju National Museum. Gyeongju was the royal capital of the Korean kingdom of Silla which flourished from the mid first century BC to the eight century AD.  These crowns date from the fifth through seventh centuries. The exact nature of the crowns is unknown: ethnographers believe the magnificent shamanistic forms reflect a steppe influence (perhaps from Persia/Iran) but much about these crowns remains a mystery.  We aren’t even sure if they were worn by the living or if they were solely exquisite grave goods.

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The Scilla crowns were discovered in huge, nigh impregnable barrows which were only excavated in the 1920s.  The coffins of the Silla nobles were placed in deep pits lined with wood.  These were covered with dense clay and then with giant river boulders and then with a huge burial mound.  This particular crown is 30.7 centimeters (one foot) in height and 18.4 centimeters  (7.25 inches) in diameter. The headband is decorated with lovely abstruse leaf-shapes and bent jade ornaments called “gogok” comma-shaped curved jewels which are believed to be tied to bear worship (perhaps reflecting Japanese of Iranian influence).

Wikipedia blithely states that the crown reflects no Chinese influence and yet, “the right and left most branches, along with the middle branches of the five branches, are composed of the Chinese character 出 in three prongs. The tips of the branches are decorated with a budding flower ornament.” Hmmm—you will have to make up your own mind on that score (although finding anything anywhere in East Asia without some sort of Chinese influence is rare).  Scholars who believe that the crowns reflect shamanistic influences see a tree in the gold shape (which seems like a bit of a stretch…but they do remind me a bit of Zhou Dynasty bronze work which was heavily influenced by animism/shamanism , so judge for yourself).

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Silla began as one small state in the Samhan confederacies (loosely allied with Imperial China), but subsequently spread through the middle of the peninsula.  During its heyday (around when these crowns were made) Silla succeeded in conquering the other two great kingdoms of Korea and briefly unifying the peninsula, but a parasitic entrenched aristocracy sapped it of its vitality and devoured it from within (a decline which was hastened by sectarianism, schism, and civil war).  We still have these splendid crowns though…

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Happy year of the Earth Dog!  Today marks the beginning of Lunar Year 4715 in the Chinese calendar.  Where did the time go? We have finally worked our way past all of the fire roosters and metal horses to the familiar dog—an exceedingly great animal! According to augury, the coming year will be a very good year, particularly vis a vis financial matters…however, the year will also be enervating and could feature health problems related to stress, exhaustion, and strife (it looks like the augurs have at least been reading the frontpage headlines).

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The same Earth element which provides the success of the Earth Dog year will also mean there will be stretches of extreme dullness.  Once again it seems like the oracles can see right into my actual life! Who writes this stuff? Finally, the site I looked at says “postponing and procrastinating are words you will need to remove from your vocabulary during this year.”  Sadly, my vocabulary is very extensive and I am not about to forget THOSE words.  However even for tempestuous & disorganized tigers, the dog year will be a year when projects come to fruition.  The dog year is the eleventh year in the 12 year cycle so it is the beginning of a cycle of rebirth.  We can look forward to that as well…and to some dumplings and fireworks!

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Thanks to my exigent schedule, I can’t really have a dog in New York, but I love them.  Dogs are the first domesticated animal by tens of thousands of years (or maybe much more).  In their wild form, dogs are known as “wolves” and they are one of the apex predators of the Holocene. Wolves and humans are one of the all-time great pairings like Laurel and Hardy, peanut butter and jelly, or water and sodium—two super aggressive hierarchical social predators who just innately get each other (wait, what was Laurel and Hardy about again?). I have been meaning to write about dogs since they are dear to me (and since the converging stories of our two species explains things about living beings). I will do so next week to celebrate the Year of the Dog. For now though  “Gǒu nián dà jí” – Lots of luck for this year of the dog!

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For Valentine’s Day, I have saved this troubling obituary from the animal world.  Last month, Nigel the lonely gannet died.  Nigel lived on Mana Island, a desolate stony island about 25 kilometers northwest of Wellington, the capital of New Zealand.   Mana Island was once the home to many sea birds, but after the island was intensively farmed during the 19th and 20th centuries, the colonies failed. The…nutrients…provided by the birds gave the island rich soil but, without the birds this abundance faded away and the island’s ecosystem crashed (this is a sort of microcosm of what happened to the larger New Zealand ecosystem during the 19th and 20th centuries as waves of invasive creatures swept the remote archipelago).  New Zealand conservationists have been working to restore the empty island however they were left with a problem.  Gannets live where other gannets live.  How could they lure the oceangoing birds back to start a new bird colony?

The solution they settled upon was to play bird calls on electronic speakers and put out concrete decoys painted the handsome black white and ocher of live gannets, however this strategy did not lure gannets to Mana…except for Nigel.  He arrived a few years ago and selected a beautiful replica gannet and began to woo his concrete love with mating displays, nests, and excited chatter.  He even tried to preen her concrete feathers and explore physical intimacy with her.  Videos of Nigel trying to impress his inanimate mate became a real hit in the human world (where analogies are not unknown).  This year other living gannets finally arrived at Mana Island, and naturalists hoped that Nigel could find fulfillment and raise a family with a real bird, but it was not to be.  In late January of 2018, a ranger found Nigel dead upon his nest next to his concrete consort.  The futility of his life and bleak melancholy of his end have attracted worldwide attention.

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Ornithologists have speculated that Nigel was an odd bird, somehow injured, addled, or damaged, which is why he left his original colony. His defects, if any, were certainly not visible to the human eye and he looked like a healthy handsome seabird. Gannets dive from 30 meters (100 feet), and achieve speeds of 100 kilometres per hour (62 mph) as they enter the water.  Their speed and mass, and matchless skill as divers enables them to catch large fish deeper than most airborne birds can venture.  Nigel did all of this, but things just didn’t work out.

Except, maybe they did: there are now gannets nesting on Mana Island, brought there not by statues, but by a live gannet.  As one contemplates Nigel’s lonely life, it is hard not to imagine HIM transformed into a beautiful statue which says “Our Founder.”  We will watch the colony with interest and see if the gannets make it after their 40-year absence from Mana.

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Nigel’s life and his death raise bigger questions about the nature of life and how organisms work together, collectively and individually.  This blog has visited these issues before in posts about blood, clonal colonies, lonely geese, and siphonophores (animals made of other animals where the individual zooids serve in the capacity of organs).

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I have a long running philosophical argument with a friend concerning the nature of humankind.  He asserts that each person is a magnificent individual—a whole self-contained universe. I don’t think that is correct.  No animal is quite so solitary (unless it is the last of its kind) and especially not us: we are colony animals like mole rate or termites or honeybees.  If you see one human, you have a whole infestation.  This means our culture is as much who we are as ourselves (as becomes incredibly evident in heartbreaking cases of feral children or abused hermit loners).  The splendid fantasy of being alone is just that—a fantasy.  In reality we are as tied to our banks, gas companies, annoying colleagues, and odious loudmouth leaders more than we would ever like to admit.  We will come back to these ideas in subsequent posts, but for now Happy Valentine’s Day and RIP Nigel.  There really should be a statue of him, we could all see some of ourselves in that stone mirror…and some of humanity’s real nature in the living colony birds coming back to roost on desolate Mana Island.

Northern Gannet (Morus bassanus), sky pointing courtship display

Northern Gannet (Morus bassanus), sky pointing courtship display

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I’m really enjoying the Winter Olympics!  South Korea looks great and has clearly pulled out all of the stops hosting. I especially like the elegant “victory ceremony” women who guide the athletes in behavior and protocol at the Olympic medal platforms—these women are like an amazing cross between super models, Santa Claus, and Batman’s butler.  In addition to Olympic medals, they ply victors with abstruse puzzle sculptures and stuffed animals (and gentle stage directions).  The reason I am writing tonight though is to look back at the huge dove of peace which was formed by human performers bearing lights during the opening ceremony.  I am…skeptical of North Korea’s motivations in the troubled affairs of Korea.  I share American Defense Secretary Mattis’ concern that North Korea’s long game is to unify the peninsula under Kim rule by means of nuclear coercion.  Yet it was indeed touching to see the generosity and elan of the South Korean hosts sharing their moment in the international spotlight with their wayward sister nation, and the glowing dove made of humans was moving (and visually splendid).

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I’m going to go watch some more winter sports now (hooray Chloe Kim!) but this is going to be a great week, what with the Olympics, Mardi Gras, Valentine’s Day, and Chinese New Year.  Best wishes to all of the Olympic athletes, and best wishes to the nations of Earth who look splendid when they assemble in peace and celebration.

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When it comes to colors, our understanding has cultural and historical connotations.  The names of colors change over time as points of cultural relevance change and as the language evolves.  Many colors we are familiar with today (thanks to the miracles of synthetic chemistry and industrialization) were extremely esoteric to Europeans of the ancient and medieval world.  The old Latin and Greek words for exotic colors were influenced by rare jewels and unusual birds (which might be the only shared terrestrial examples of hues which were only seen in sunsets and other mutable natural phenomena).  We have already written about the ponderous word “icterine” an old Greco-Roman term for the beautiful pale yellow of various birds and insects. Today we take on an even more dissonant word which entered Middle-English in the 14th century from ancient Greek (possibly by way of France).  “Smaragdine” is the bright blue-green color of emeralds. It was a color which was rare and precious in the 14th century world.  The word has lingered in the corners of English and is still on the books today (although, if you ask your colleague to hand you the smaragdine mousepad you might not get the green one…or anything other than an angry stare or sharp words).  Even if the word smaragdine is not euphonic to modern ears, the color is exquisite and rich.  The chief conclusion of this etymological diversion is that Ferrebeekeeper needs to write more about emeralds.

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Congratulations to SpaceX, Elon Musk’s private space company for successfully testing its new heavy lift rocket, the Falcon Heavy, a reusable multi-stage heavy lift rocket for delivering large cargoes to Earth orbit or for traveling on cislunar or even interplanetary trips.  The rocket is the largest conventional rocket built since the mighty Saturn V which took humankind to the moon (although the space shuttle’s elaborate  boosters were capable of greater thrust).  The Falcon Heavy vehicle is capable of  producing 5 million pounds of thrust at liftoff–which means it can heft around around 63,800 kilograms (140,700 pounds) of payload into low-Earth orbit.

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Today’s launch from Kennedy Space Center was largely successful: the top and bottom boosters landed safely on designated platforms.  The center booster, alas, did not quite perform as hoped and slammed into the ocean.  The rocket’s payload, Mr. Musk’s electric Tesla roadster (with a mannequin and sundry pop-culture science fiction novelty items) successfully entered a heliocentric orbit which will bring it back and forth between Mars and Earth as it loops around the sun.  The launch paves the way for a new era of private industry in space (SpaceX plans to monetize subsequent Falcon Heavy rocket missions for government and commercial payloads and missions), but it is only a step on the way to a planned BFR (Big “Falcon” Rocket) for interplanetary missions.  I am excited by that concept, though I hope Mr. Musk will take a moment to think about the top of Venus’ atmosphere as a potential destination as well as cold arid Mars. For right now though, hooray for this thrilling milestone!

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