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I got home a bit later than I planned…and there is still dinner to be cooked and sculptures to be crafted, but, just so that we don’t have a day with no content, here is a stupid animal meme which I crafted for the impeachment hearings.

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It’s just a joke of course: quolls are marsupial carnivores, they are hardly the sort of debased predators who would blackmail eastern European countries into shameful acts by pointedly withholding cash assistance.

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Young King Otto (1832, Joseph Stieler) oil on canvas

In the 1820s, Greece fought a desperate war for independence from the Ottoman Empire.  Russia, France, and the United Kingdom helped the fledgling nation prevail against the Sultan, and in 1830 the great powers helped Greece map its new borders. Unfortunately though, there are always growing pains, and in 1831, Ioannis Kapodistrias, the first head of state, was assassinated, hurling the peninsula into chaos.  Russia, France, and the United Kingdom reconvened in teh London Conference of 1832 and together they chose a new king, Otto I for the “free” people of Greece. Otto was the second son of Ludwig I of Bavaria (and the uncle of Ludwig II, the fairy tale prince, whose doom-laden, swan-heavy exploits have been described on Ferrebeekeeper before).

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In 1832 Otto ordered a crown from Fossin et Fils Goldsmiths in Paris to mark his coronation.  The gilded silver crown arrived in 1835, but it was used for a coronation, since Otto was never crowned.  Also, there were no precious stones to mount on the new crown so paste placeholders were used.  Speaking of paste placeholders, Otto was overthrown in a coup in 1862 and returned to Bavaria, taking the crown with him.  Some things just don’t work out very well.  But, stupidly, the crown just set around in Bavaria, until 1959 when it was “returned” to Paul I of Greece.  I guess it is still the crown of Greece, even though it looks like they got it out of bubble gum machine in a pizza parlour.  History has a lot of cul de sacs.

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A photo of Otto, in exile in Bavaria in 1865

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It’s time we had a painful talk about the pornographic ‘novel’, “Fifty Shades of Gray,” a best-seller published in 2011/2012.   [Disclaimer: I haven’t read this work nor watched the awful-looking movies.  I am guilty of a cardinal sin of scholarship: writing about something I haven’t read.  I don’t care: I never plan to read this thing.  My point here is not really about bad popular fiction] This uh…romance (?) book is about a shy & awkward virginal nobody who is sent to interview a manipulative billionaire creep.  Unsurprisingly, the manipulative billionaire seduces her with his obscene wealth and power and locks her in a contract where he is allowed to do anything he wants to her. Romance ensues!

It is tempting to look at this moronic plot, shrug, and say “Who likes this stuff?” Yet actually, we should not be surprised that this book was a top-of-the charts best-seller for years–a second look reveals it to be an extremely germane allegory of our actual lives.  America’s fantasies of being enslaved and abused by creepy billionaires are not harmless fantasies: they are the reality of our times!  It is the top item of the news every day.  The extent to which this slimy bondage narrative about billionaires abusing underlings has become the main story of our entire culture should not be overlooked or underestimated.

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The characters in “Fifty Shades of Gray” at least have a safe word.  We do not.  The new oligarchs can do anything they wish and face almost no repercussions (as was illustrated by the lack of accountability for the events which caused the Great Recession…and illustrated again, afterwards, when the people who caused the crisis became much richer).   This is because of a devilish nexus of market consolidation and oligopoly.  Since the super rich now own almost everything (including the media outlets and tech platforms we use to communicate), it also means that we live in a world awash in glowing panegyrics to these monopolists,raiders, and conmen. We also live in a country where both political parties are captured and compromised by monopolistic moneyed interests (all of this is elucidated in this rather superb Atlantic essay about how the political crisis of the 21st century is taking us much further down “the road to serfdom” than we would have imagined).

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Obviously in addressing these problems, I am talking about President Trump, but I don’t think Trump is actually a billionaire.  He lost his inherited fortune in the 80s and has been adding billions and billions of dollars of increasingly shady debt ever since.  However he certainly identifies as a billionaire (snicker) and he serves the crooked schemes of oligarchs…and the even darker schemes of his unknown true creditors. It is these finance, tech, and real-estate tycoons who are the real problem.  Unfortunately it is difficult to even fathom how they are removing real competition from the system or real political power from the hands of voters.  Here is a rather fascinating article about he true darkness of money in politics.

If you followed that link you will see it was mostly about money in conservative political circles, but the Democratic Party has a similar problem.  Every day some new Christian Gray flies out of the sky and offers to tie us up and save us from ourselves.  “Come on, you know you’ll like it” says Bloomberg as he pushes us onto a stained sofa and fumbles for the straps.

In case you are laboring under the ingenuous middle-class fantasy that this applies to all of those slutty self-hating poor people but not to a worthy, hot, hard-working burgher like yourself then wake up! We are all poor compared to people whose net worth is measured in nine and ten and figures.  The prevalence of SLAPP suits, K Street consultants, and secret nondisclosure agreements  with Epsteins,  Weinsteins, and Michael Jacksons reflects a world where the rich are too big to fail and the rest of us are two small to ever succeed.

It all needs to change. Instead of wasting your life in some monopolistic company’s taupe open office while counting other people’s money or building marketing concepts for stuff you can’t afford, you could have your own business.  Instead of health care that can only be obtained through working for a gigantic company, we could have a real safety net.  We need rules and regulations, but not the sort of rules that can only be followed by organizations with giant compliance departments and that only benefit huge corporate cartels.  Barriers to market entry that are too high for anyone who isn’t an international oligarch. Globalism is the story of how vast new international cartels and oligopolies have broken politics and culture in such a way that we can’t even respond (except with essays that nobody reads).

This is unacceptable.  Let us talk about how to rewrite this bad codependant SM tale.

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The French were the original masters of the erotic tale.  From Clovis I until Louis XVI, they wrote an unrivaled “Shades of Gray” style series of bondage novels which started hard and grew even more perverted and extreme as the centuries rolled by.  But the French people got tired of this series and flipped the script and rewrote the whole premise in the boldest way possible.  Perhaps we need to think of doing some radical editing and rewriting before the story of our own lives becomes even more like “Fifty Shades of Gray” and “The Story of O”.

We can rewrite this tale with thoughtful political reform and  redistribution (we use to call such thing taxes and expect everyone to pay their fair share so we could have a society and make real scientific discoveries).  Billionaires need to sign up for this and agree to just being extremely wealthy instead of needing to have ALL the wealth. Otherwise someday they will find not President Trump or Bloomberg, but President Robespierre.  They should think that the forces we are now unleashing could result in billionaires getting screwed too. Not the Christian Gray way.  The French 1789 way.

 

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An artist’s conception of Ani during the reign of King Gagik I (ca 1000 AD) at the height of its power and success

One of the unexpected things I learned about when studying Byzantine history was the existence of Ani, “the city of 1001 churches.”  At its zenith, around the the beginning of the 11th century AD, Ani was one of the largest cities in Central Asia. Ani was the capital, ecclesiastical center, and chief city of the Bagratid Kingdom of Armenia.  During the long reign of the gifted King Gagik I (989–1020 AD), Ani supported a population of more than 100,000 inhabitants.   The great stone city of churches, monasteries, bridges, and shops was located on a naturally protected triangular elevation with the ravine of the Akhurian River on one side (providing abundant water) and steep valleys on the other two sides.  Some inspired artist made this astonishing map of Ani at its heyday (here is a link to a high-res image).  Not only does the image illustrate the opulent beauty and sophistication of Ani, the decorative map also shows how it was nestled beautifully in its protected location.

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The Kingdom of Armenia was likewise admirably situated between the Byzantine Empire to the west, the Abbassid Caliphate to the south, the Georgian kingdoms to the north.  To the east were riches! Ani was near the western terminus of the famed silk road which runs through Central Asia.

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Today though, Ani is known (insomuch as it is known at all) for being an uninhabited ruin. It is a disconsolate city of the dead, despised and ignored by its Turkish overlords as a hateful symbol of medieval Christian Armenia.  A few empty cathedrals and ruined churches sit in the wasteland like the sad bones of a feast devoured a thousand years ago.

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What happened to destroy this thriving city?  Well, as you might imagine, it was conquered again and again by meddling potentates and invading armies from all of those various states around it.  The most serious of these invasions was in 1064 when a Seljuk army under the command of Sultan Diya ad-Dunya wa ad-Din Adud ad-Dawlah Abu Shuja Muhammad Alp Arslan ibn Dawud (to use his full name) sacked Ani after a 25 day seige. Here is a description of the occasion from Sibṭ ibn al-Jawzi, the famous Baghdad-born scholar and historian:

Putting the Persian sword to work, [the Seljuk invaders] spared no one… One could see there the grief and calamity of every age of human kind. For children were ravished from the embraces of their mothers and mercilessly hurled against rocks, while the mothers drenched them with tears and blood… The city became filled from one end to the other with bodies of the slain and [the bodies of the slain] became a road. […] The army entered the city, massacred its inhabitants, pillaged and burned it, leaving it in ruins and taking prisoner all those who remained alive…The dead bodies were so many that they blocked the streets; one could not go anywhere without stepping over them. And the number of prisoners was not less than 50,000 souls. I was determined to enter city and see the destruction with my own eyes. I tried to find a street in which I would not have to walk over the corpses; but that was impossible…

But what left the Kingdom of Armenia so weakened and unable to defend itself that the Seljuks were able to do as they pleased?  Division and ruinous factionalism! King Gagik had two sons who bitterly fought over the succession.  The favored elder son controlled Ani and its cosmopolitan wealth, while the other son controlled the countryside.   So greatly did the brothers despise each other that they set the country folk and city folk against each other and invited outsiders into Armenia hoping to secure a political advantage. The Byzantine Emperor Michael IV, claimed sovereignty over Ani in 1041. The Byzantines hollowed out Ani’s wealth and strength for their own ends leaving it defenseless against the Seljuks.  After the 1064 sack described above, the Seljuks sold the decimated city to the Shaddadids, a Muslim Kurdish dynasty, which was largely tolerant of Ani’s Christianity. Yet the Shaddadids fought with Georgians. The Georgians fought with Mongols.  Mongols fought with Persians.  By the time, the Turks took over in 1579, all that was left was a small town nestled in the rubble and even that was abandoned by 1735.

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Undoubtedly Ani’s location at the edge of the Central Asian steppe did it no favors; yet a clever historian or political theorist might be able to draw other important lessons from Ani’s fate. One wonders what other cities will look like Ani a thousand years from now…assuming there even are any cities.  These days, humankind’s mistakes are coming in whole new orders of magnitude from those of a thousand years ago when a city the size of modern-day Peoria was considered one of the largest cities in all of Eurasia.

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Today (November 11, 2019) is the last time you will be able to watch Mercury transit across the face of the sun until 2032.  From sunrise EST until about 1:04 PM EST, people who are equipped with special super shades and giant weird specialty telescopes will be able to watch the tiny black dot of Mercury move across the face of the sun.  Mercury is slightly larger than Earth’s moon (although it much more dense) but it is also much farther away from Earth.  As the innermost planet moves between the sun and Earth, viewers here at home can watch…provided they have lots of weird specialty equipment (whatever you do, don’t stare directly at the sun or point any unfiltered lenses at it).  If you are like me, you certainly don’t have these sorts of optical tools lying around. But never fear: NASA is there for you, and you can watch the show with their fancy equipment via their site (or you can check out pictures after the event, in case you didn’t look at this post until it was too late). Enjoy this transit!  We can talk about the larger implications and about future plans for Mercury during the next transit in 2032…

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American Forest Before the Chestnut Blight

Once upon a time, American deciduous forests were filled with a magnificent tree, the American chestnut tree.  It is estimated that, prior to the twentieth century, a quarter of the trees in the forests of Appalachia were chestnut trees.  The trees grew to 30 metres (98 ft) in height and were prized for giving stout timber and large quantities of delicious nuts.  They were also renowned for their beauty.  But then, something bad happened.  In 1904, some Asian chestnut trees were planted in the Bronx (in what is now the Bronx zoo).  These Chinese chestnut trees had a pathogenic fungus, Cryphonectria parasitica, living on them.  Chestnut tree species of Asia have evolved some defenses to this rapidly spreading fungus, but the two American species were completely unprepared.  By 1950, the blight had killed more than four billion trees and only strange isolated single specimens and sad still-living (yet undead) stumps remained.  The chestnut blight opened our eyes to the perils of invasive species in a world of almost-instant shipping (although I don’t think we have yet fully understand how pervasive and potentially dangerous fungi can be), it also marked an irreversible change to our beautiful forests…

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Evidence of the Chestnut Blight!

Except maybe not.  Molecular biologists, mycologists, and arborists have been quietly working for years to hybridize a blight-resistant modern American chestnut tree.  They failed at hybridizing a vigorous tree with the desired characteristics of the original American chestnut trees, so they turned to transgenic tinkering and this technology has yielded results.  The American Chestnut Research and Restoration Project at New York state’s College of Environmental Science and Forestry has utilized the same sort of technology behind genetically modified crops (like BT rapeseed and such) in order to create American chestnut trees which have a gene from wheat that helps the trees survive and tolerate Cryphonectria parasitica.  The American Chestnut Research and Restoration Project is readying an army of these genetically altered trees to go into the wild forests and reseed North America as it used to be, but their plan is not without controversy.

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Some opponents worry (understandably) that bringing back the chestnut will represent “a massive and irreversible experiment” on our living forests.  Additionally, as we know from the hysterical response to transgenic crops in Europe and even here, many people are extremely emotional and ill-informed about gene-manipulation technologies (probably because the phrase “gene-manipulation technologies” sounds so much like a 1950s horror movie tagline).   Transgenic blight-resistant American chestnut trees still need regulatory review from the Food and Drug Administration (and maybe the Environmental Protection Agency) before they can be planted and allowed to disperse pollen.  Such a process may take many years.  Yet tree lovers and concerned ecologists point out that the near-extinction level mass deaths of American chestnuts was caused by humankind’s actions and choices.  And more blights are arriving every year to destroy other cherished species of trees.  We live in a world of emerald ash borers, Dutch Elm Disease, spotted lantern flies, gypsy tent moths, and oak wilt.  If we don’t start doing something, the only tree left might be the diabolical invasive tree of heaven (I can’t believe nobody commented on that post! Am I the only person to despise that nightmarish monster?).

The regulators are starting to analyze the proper course of action, and I guess we will be hearing more from them, but, in the meantime, what do you think?

 

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Halloween this year featured scary clowns…but I just realized that I forgot to include one of the best posts on this subject before October ended.  This is Balistoides conspicillum, the clown triggerfish, one of the most beloved of all aquarium fishes because of its wild white spots and bright orange greasepaint mouth (along with sundry yellow/white stipples, squiggles, stripes and some translucent cornflower fins).  I promised I would showcase some Tetraodontiformes (my favorite order of fish), and there could hardly be a showier fish in the ocean!

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Don’t let this fish’s comic good looks deceive you though:  it is not some oceangoing fop.  Clown triggerfish live on coral reefs throughout the tropical Indo-Pacific (and maybe in the Caribbean part of Atlantic, during these days of irresponsible hobbyists) and the adult fish prefer a solitary life at the edge of the reef where it drops off into the endless blue of the ocean.  The top of deep underwater cliffs is their favorite home, presumably so they can stare forbodingly into the depths like a melancholic hero from Romantic art. This means that clown triggerfish must cope with all of the denizens of the reef…and with pelagic outsiders who live by different standards than those of the bustling underwater “cities”.

Clown triggerfish stand up to other fish, even much larger ones, with an arsenal that includes strong muscles, nimble maneuverability, cleverness (they are reputed to be some of the smartest fish in the ocean), a locking “trigger” bone to make them hard to pry out of caves, and, oh yeah, a terrifying mouth filled with sharp rock-like teeth.  Their diet of tunicates, spiny sea urchins, large arthropods (crabs and lobsters), and bivalve mollusks such as clams necessitates formidably strong jaw muscles.  Apparently clown triggerfish can just bite right through lobster armor and clamshells. True to their common name, these fish sometimes become prankish with their owners and, at feeding time, they have been known to grunt comically and squirt water onto their favorite humans.   If they like a person they can be fed by hand or even caressed, but it is a risky venture since, obviously,  they can use their mouths for more than biting through clams.

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Adult clown triggerfish grow to be half a meter in size and they can live for up to 20 years in captivity.  When they spawn, the triggerfish dig a shallow nest in the coral rubble and lay eggs in it.  Together the couple fiercely guards the eggs until the babies hatch, then all parties go their own ways.  Juvenile clown triggerfish have a diamond shape and are completely covered in white spots (their other markings appear as they mature).

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Behold! This is Costasiella kuroshimae, AKA the ‘leaf sheep.”  It isn’t a sheep at all, of course, it’s really a sea slug from the Sarcoglossan clade.  These marine gastropods can be found in the Indo-Pacific off the shores of Indonesia, Japan, and the Philippines. Costasiella kuroshimae scrapes up marine algae and digests it, but the animal then sequesters the living chloroplasts from inside the algae cells into its own tissues.  Chloroplasts, like many other cell plastids, seem to have been independent life forms in the ancient single-cellular dawn of life, but they have since been co-opted and assimilated into the living cells of plants and blue-green algae.  The leaf sheep pulls the same trick–a process known to biologists as kleptoplasty (which is common in protists, but unknown in multicellular creatures except for these slugs).  This is why the leaf sheep glows a glorious living green color.  The slug can keep the chloroplasts alive within its own tissues for extended periods and metabolize the photosynthetic products for its own uses.

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Ghostly Sole (Wayne Ferrebee, 2019) ink on paper

I meant to post a weird evil clown flounder picture which I had (a “clownder”?), but, infuriatingly, I could not find it among my boxes of drawings.  I suspect it will show up next year, during election season when we have forgotten all about evil clowns (rolls eyes).  Anyway, for Halloween, I will just put up the drawing I was working on for All Soles Day, the biggest holiday in the flounderist’s calendar (?).  It is a picture of a ghostly sole, on the bottom of the ocean surrounded by apparitions playing musical instruments and ethereal sea creatures and monsters.  There are some other things in there as well.  Hopefully it is becoming evident that my flatfish series of artworks represent an elegy for the dying oceans.  Shed a pearlescent tear!  But also remember: the oceans are in deep trouble, but they are not dead yet.  Filled with plastic and floating Chinese fish factories and bleached coral and acidified warm water they still team with life.  We could safe them and live together on a beautiful planet, but we will have to be better versions of ourselves.  It is a chilling message for All Sole’s Day (and an unhumerous end to Halloween season) but it is the most important advice you will find on the internet, despite the fact that it is abstract and open-ended.  Just look at the picture though, you wouldn’t want to live in a world with dead oceans would you…I mean even if you could.

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This year’s Halloween theme (both in Ferrebeekeeper and our benighted democracy) is “Evil Clowns”.  Clowns date back to dynastic Egypt and they have always been liminal figures who have straddled lines between wisdom and foolishness, outcast and insider, living person and weird effigy, and even between good and evil.  Evil clowns really got up and running as a meme in the 19th century with stories like “Hop Frog” by Edgar Allan Poe, yet there is a critical precursor which I overlooked.  Back when I was young and innocent, I started a toy company with a mysterious & dodgy business person I met.  For some reason, running an international business proved impossible, but I loved making toys and I also enjoyed looking back through the history of toys which combines cultural, technological, and art history (and which stretches to before Eridu rose from the mud).  Evil clowns turn out to have a very direct link with one of the most successful and powerful toy concepts of the last thousand years.

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In the early 16th century, a German clock-maker known as Claus built the first known example of what we would call a “Jack in the Box” for a local princeling.  Claus built a wooden box which popped open when the user turned the crank.  Except it wasn’t a clown that popped out, it was a devil!  The French name for this toy is “diable en boîte” (devil in a box) which hearkens back to the first generation jack-in-the-boxes which were all devils.   Some toy historians speculate that all of this was related to a 14th century English prelate named Sir John Schorne who was said to possess a boot with a devil inside it (for reasons which are obscure).

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Fairly on, jack-in-the-box toys diversified from being just devils, but a lot of these clowns maintained a sort of Krampus-like demonic aspect to them.  Here are some photos I stole at random from around the web and I think they illustrate how alarming Jack in the boxes are (although people with sensitive and anxious temperaments could already tell you that–this is after all a toy meant to startle you)

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Gah! Just look at these puppies…and they were made for children.  Jack-in-the-boxes are already bad enough, but imagine if one of these things popped out.  The depraved marketers for the movie “It” made a jack-in-the-box featuring Pennywise, the evil clown from that movie (see below) but frankly Pennywise looks like he would be mugged by any of these older anonymous jack-in-the-box clowns.  It is hard to say anything with certainty when we are talking about nebulous and ancient cultural concepts, but I wonder if the idea of clowns as terrifying bogey-men didn’t come as much from generations of jack-in-the-box scarred children as from literary lions like King and Poe.

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