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Sooo…I try to keep it light on Mondays so we can get through these long weeks, but one of our recent posts demands an immediate follow-up. Remember how I was discussing the grim fate of ‘Gros Michel’ (‘Fat Michel’) the strain of bananas which were wiped out by Panama disease in the 50s? Well, Panama disease has mutated and returned. It’s baaaack…and this time it destroying the once immune ‘Cavendish’ plants which make up almost every banana in Europe, Africa, and the New World Photos are becoming more and more common of dying banana plants and desperate farmers burning their groves. ‘Cavendish’ plants are clones and if one is susceptible, they all are. I really like bananas (when they are ripe) and the idea of doing without the radioactive potassium-rich fruit makes me sad. What are we going to do?
I guess a good market solution would be to make a transgenic banana that was resistant to the Panama disease, patent the critical gene fragment, and then sell sterile clones of the frankenfruit. Since I like science and bananas (though not necessarily giant agribusinesses) so this is an acceptable solution to keep the yellow fruit on the table.
An alternate idea, however strikes me as far better. We should send out teams of banana farmers and taste-testers to South East Asia (the first home of the banana) to collect purple, white, red, and gray bananas. Different folks can start growing all sorts of new bananas around the world. Undoubtedly some of them are more delicious than ‘Gros Michel” and I bet they are all more resistant to the blight.
In fact just yesterday, regular Ferrebeekeeper commenter Beatrix reported on the delicious (albeit plain-looking) bananas of Nepal. She writes:
Here in Nepal we have all sorts of different bananas growing wild & in cultivation. They vary from short sweeties to starchy plantain sorts. Nepalis don’t have names for the different types of bananas. One of the tastiest varieties here is the ugliest – it is rather small (fingerlike), sporting a mottled greenish black peel with patches of gray lichen when ripe. The peel is surprisingly paper thin but the the flesh is a rich golden yellow & the taste is the most incredible, sweet custard-y banana flavor ever. I have never tasted this type of banana anywhere but Nepal. Most Asians prefer the starchy, bland bananas that most westerners would consider unripe – they think by the time a banana gets to the yellow mottled with brown stage it’s rotten.
Who here doesn’t want to try these delicious ugly bananas? I am ready to pack up and head off to Nepal just to try them! What we have is a marketing problem. If these charlatans can sell people on stuff like organic food and bottled water, why can’t they sell delicious (but ugly) finger-length bananas? The second coming of Panama disease needn’t spell the end of bananas (although we may lose the familiar bright yellow “Cavendish”)—perhaps this could be the beginning of a glorious new era of multicolor bananas of all sizes and flavors!
Back when I was at school in the 90s there was a breathless sense that we all lived on the threshold of a nanotech revolution. In the future we would quaff chalices filled with infinitesimal robots and the little machines would devour our cancers and grant us superpowers. Flash forward to 2015 and what we have instead is microbeads. These are exactly what they sound like–polyethylene microspheres which have worked their way into consumer goods of every sort. Microbeads were supposed to “exfoliate” or “microcleanse” or perform some other nebulous pseudoverb dreamed up by marketers. What they really do instead is abrade microfissures into our gums before passing through the filters of water treatment plants and pouring into the world’s rivers, lakes, and oceans. In these larger ecosystems, the beads soak up pollutants and are mistaken for eggs by tiny arthropods and fry. The infernal little spheres are working their way into the food chain and causing havoc.
Ferrebeekeeper believes that technology is the solution to most problems. This blog often excoriates the powers that be for not moving fast enough to bring us breakthroughs and marvels. So why are we featuring the troubling story of microbeads? First (and most-obviously) because technology only works if we all pay close attention and correct errors and problems as they occur. This is no easy task when dealing with systems as complicated as those seen in biology and ecology.
More importantly it is a rebuke to the market system. There is a certain segment of society which continuously holds aloft the market as the final and greatest arbiter of what is right and best. This seems dangerously misguided. The market prefers expensive baldness therapy, instantly obsolete cellphones, and microbeads to the expensive and abstract research into fundamental science where real breakthroughs come from. The market is a single shiny gimcrack in our collective box of tricks for dealing with the world, but it should not be mistaken for the toolbox…or the world! Markets are better at making a few charlatans rich then for helping us all understand existence.
Let’s remove little beads from our soap and work a bit harder in the nanotech laboratory. We are not getting any younger and some of those little cancer eating robots might come in handy…provided they are not brought to us at a horrifying markup by Ciba-Geigy (and then end up eating our spleens). If we do not work a bit harder to correct the excesses within our resource allocation system, we are going to end up with more micro cleanse and less true understanding.
I’m sorry I didn’t write a post last Thursday or Friday: I was away from Brooklyn on a whirlwind family trip to see the farmstead and visit my parents and grandparents. Now I love Brooklyn with all of my heart, but it was a great relief to be away from it for a little while. It was lovely to feed the thousand gentle farm creatures, to assess the growth of the plums, apples & nut trees in the orchard, and to walk back through the soybean fields into the true forest.
Unfortunately there wasn’t much in the way of writing time (and there isn’t much internet access in West Virginia and southeastern Ohio anyway). However I have a few little drawings which I doodled while I was home. My favorite is at the top of the page—it is a view of the soybean fields as the viewer emerges from the forest and is struck by the dazzling deep green of the plants. Soybeans are a critical crop in numerous ways, but I never really noticed them as a child–perhaps because I didn’t yet love edamame, or maybe because I hadn’t become used to living in a world of asphalt and bricks. Anyway, I will write a post about soybeans, but I wanted to share a quick impression of their overwhelming glowing greenness. The second picture is a drawing from the road of Parkersburg, West Virginia. The town is actually both much prettier and much uglier than the sketch—there are numerous picturesque Romanesque and “Jacobethan” churches and buildings, but there also some truly dispiriting strip malls along the outskirts (which I represented with a Kia dealership). Still the town has been improving incrementally for decades—perhaps thanks to my parents’ lovely yarn shop and quilting shop (which you should totally visit if you are ever in the Midwest/Appalachian region).
Speaking of quilting, I also drew a purely abstract picture of paisleys after I became fascinated by the printed patterns of the bolts of quilting cloth. Ever since the age of the Mughals, paisley has regularly come into fashion and then fallen out of it. Yet the concept seems to be much more ancient than the Scottish textile makers of the early industrial revolution or the Mughals. Paisley is another subject I need to blog about—because I think it is tremendously beautiful.
Finally there is a little drawing of the goose pond. I sketched it quickly (and from a distance) just before we drove off to the airport, but you can still see a few little pilgrim geese swimming about on it. My parents’ flock of these creatures has succeeded beyond all measure and now it is like their farm is infested with miniature dinosaurs. Everywhere you look there are geese busily gnawing on grass, biting each other’s tails, or jumping sadly (with expectant open beaks) beneath tantalizing green apples. I am sorry I didn’t do a sketch that really does justice to the lovable avine miscreants, however I am afraid that if I had stood among them long enough to draw them, they would have begun to nibble on me like a big ear of corn (which is their affectionate way of gently reminding visitors that geese get hungry for corn and lovely for attention). Thanks for looking at my drawings—now that I am back from my trip and my mind is refreshed I will try to blog about some of these new subjects!
A half a century ago, bananas were more delicious. They were creamier with a more delectable tropical fruit taste. When they ripened, they stayed ripe longer instead of swiftly turning to black slime. Since they lasted on the shelf when ripe it was possible to sell them ripe–as opposed to today’s bananas which must be purchased all green and hard and nasty. I realize that this description makes it sound like I have fallen prey to golden age syndrome—wherein a bygone time becomes a misremembered quasi-mythical standard against which today is unfavorably compared (a well-known problem for certain political parties and demographics)—yet I am not embellishing. The bananas of yore were better because they were different. If you recall the earlier banana post, you will remember that there are numerous strange and magnificent varieties of bananas in Southeast Asia—delicious miniature bananas, red bananas, purple bananas…all sorts of fruit unknown to us. For long ages, across many lives of men, farmers hybridized wild species of bananas and selectively bred the different strains into different varieties called cultivars. The most delicious and salable cultivar was “Gros Michel” (Fat Michael) which I described above. “Gros Michel” was so ideal for farming (and so tasty) that it became pretty much the only banana cultivated. Vast plantations around the world produced only “Gros Michel.” It grew on large 7 meter tall trees (21 feet) which produced abundantly.
I even have a family story of how my paternal grandparents got together during World War II. He finally expressed his interest in her by giving her a banana—which were rare and precious during the war. Grandma was suitably impressed and made a somewhat ribald poetic metaphor concerning the banana’s shape–which left grandpa with no doubts about her feelings…which is to say I am considerably in debt to “Gros Michel”, despite the fact that I have never tasted one.
So what happened to Gros Michel? Is there by chance a terrifying horror story which provides us with a useful moral lesson about our tastes, our habits, and the fragile nature of the foundations of civilization?
Well, as it happens there is such a story!
In the 1950s, a fungus Fusarium oxysporum attacked the Gros Michel bananas. It was known as “Panama Disease” and it wiped out entire plantations of fruit in Africa and South America. The blight spread with horrible speed through the great monoculture farms. All Gros Michel bananas were clones, so the contagion spread unchecked. There were years where there were almost no bananas in Europe, Africa, and the Americas: whole empires turned to ashes and rot. To save their livelihood banana growers burned their groves and moved to a new dwarf banana “the Cavendish” which was unsatisfying—but which resisted the terrible killing fungus. Gros Michel disappeared from the commercial world…although there are tantalizing rumors that it exists still in the ancestral homeland of bananas—Southeast Asia. It has even been said that Chinese billionaires import luxurious Gros Michel fruits and have lavish banana parties where they eat magnificent tasting bananas and laugh at the feeble little green bananas of the west.
Whatever the truth of these tales, what is certain is that the banana growers outside of Asia immediately fell back into their bad habit of monoculture. The Cavendish is just as vulnerable to blight as its predecessor. Indeed many monoculture crops (crops like wheat, rice, and potatoes) are potentially vulnerable to unexpected disease because of the perils of overreliance on certain favorable strains. It is a somewhat sobering thought for people who eat!
Canna is the only genus in the family Cannaceae. The genus consists of 19 species of flowering plants from the tropical and subtropical regions of the New World. Although sometimes called “lilies” they are not true lilies at all–their closest relatives are the bananas and the arrowroots.
Canna flowers are notable for huge colorful stamens—the highly modified structures of which are mistaken for petals (cannas actually have tiny easily overlooked petals). Although cannas are a rich source of starches, they are predominantly known as ornamental flowers and they are grown as annuals far outside of their native tropics. They are popular around the world, and indeed they have become invasive in Old World tropical regions of Asia and Africa.
My roommate and I went to the flower nursery and she insisted on buying a canna (which I then thought looked vulgar and tacky) for our shared garden. Yet the canna has proved itself a worthy garden plant many times over. Not only are its pretty flowers an unrivaled shade of fire-engine red, it is also vigorous in the sweltering July heat and it beautifully matches the giant green elephant ears which I have planted. The garden looks strangely tropical and magnificent with these exotic yet hardy plants. Maybe next year I will be looking for cannas of additional colors. It is a really lovely flower. I am sorry I initially dismissed it because of its unusual shape! There’s probably some sort of lesson there…
Today Ferrebeekeeper travels again to the arid scrubland of the Sahal, on the hunt for one of the most ridiculously named inhabitants of all of the earth. Well, actually I should clarify that this creature’s common English name is ridiculous. Its proper Latin name sounds at least fairly proper–Steatomys cuppedius. Steatomys cuppedius is a rodent which lives in the semi-tropical scrubland of Benin, Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, and Senegal. The little mouse seems to live a life not unlike that of other scrubland mice, but for some reason colonial taxonomists saddled it with the name “dainty fat mouse.”
Perhaps (or maybe I should say “hopefully”) your sense of humor is different from mine, but every time I read that phrase I burst out laughing. I keep imagining a fussy refined mouse sitting amidst chintz and porcelain and scarfing down cucumber sandwiches till it becomes morbidly obese. It could be the subject of a children’s book, except I don’t think children read about things like that (at least not since the death of Roald Dahl).
Anyway, back in the real world, the dainty fat mouse (snicker) is apparently not common—but it lives in inaccessible and inhospitable places and it is not endangered. Perhaps it will have the last laugh. It is also photo-shy. I scoured the internet but I could not find a single photo of Steatomys cuppedius, so, during lunchtime, I broke out my colored pencils and drew my own picture. This illustration may not be zoologically accurate, but it certainly conveys a lot of anxious personality (and maybe speaks to the zeitgeist beyond small rodents of the Sahal). I also drew one of the magnificent alien mud mosques of Timbuktu in the background to give the dainty fat mouse a sense of place!
As promised we are dedicating today’s post to the New Horizons spacecraft. The unmanned robot probe (which is the size of an unwieldy motorcycle) flew past Pluto at 7:49 a.m. EST, traveling at nearly 50,000 kilometers per hour (31,000 mph). At its nearest approach, the craft was only 1200 kilometers (7500 miles) above Pluto’s surface—closer to Pluto than Brooklyn is to Botswana.
Because of the shape and size of the solar system, the telemetry of the mission, and the niceties of radio-communication, NASA did not receive the information dump from the spacecraft until 00:53 GMT Wednesday which is uh…approximately right now! So I haven’t had any time to groom the Pluto data! Today’s post is thus more of a laurel. But the information does exist—the craft survived and completed its mission. We have a trove of knowledge about Pluto to help scientists understand the nature of the solar system—or to conceive of what kinds of new questions to ask about other planetary systems. Maybe I’ll be desperately writing another post tomorrow if scientists unexpectedly find canals on Pluto or discover that Nyx is really a giant egg or something, but most likely this data will take a long time to process and understand. Such is the nature of science (and most worthwhile pursuits). So what is the purpose of this post?
I have never been unduly upset about the designation “dwarf planet” for things like Pluto, Ceres, Eris, and Haumea. However I did grow up with “My very educated mother just served us nine pizzas” (a much snappier mnemonic than “My very educated mother just served us nothing”), and the idea of Pluto as the final planet still holds undeserved weight in my subconscious. I have thus been taking NASA’s self-congratulatory PR announcements seriously when they say “we complete the initial reconnaissance of the planets.” That sounds right to me. Humankind has gathered a great deal of information about the solar system. Now it is time to brainstorm some new objectives before the fickle public loses its interest and wanders off.
There is a national consensus that we should be spending all of our money on expensive cell phones and vastly overpriced (yet disturbingly ineffectual) medical care. The space age is reckoned to be over—and space should now be left to the likes of Elon Musk and other James Bond villain-ish mega billionaires. I think this is wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, ever so wrong. Now that we have some ideas about what is out there we should use our hard-won knowledge to do tremendous things! My favorite next step is an atmospheric mission to Venus. Let’s send some cool space blimps to sit in the high atmosphere of our sister planet and maybe launch some weird little drones and smaller balloons into the atmosphere. We could find out whether a floating colony is even feasible. Plus it would be like the Montgolfier brothers and the Wright brothers all over—on another world!
The idea of a human mission to Mars and a submarine mission to Europa also have great merit—but I see them as more difficult and with less practical purpose. What are your favorite ideas about what to do next? This seems like a good moment to at least talk about the direction we are headed, even as we sip champagne and dance joyously about what we have done.
After years and years and years of waiting, NASA’s New Horizons mission is officially in its “flyby” stage. As I write, the robot probe is desperately snapping pictures and taking readings of Pluto and its moon Charon. The closest pass-by will arrive next Tuesday when New Horizons will be a mere 12,500km from the dwarf planet.
Today’s post serves to alert you to keep your eyes peeled next week! I will be eagerly awaiting news of the developments and I will relay them to you as quickly as possible–although Pluto is 320 light minutes away from us (give or take a few hundred million kilometers) so nobody is going to be caught up in real time. In the meantime, New Horizons is already learning more about the dwarf planet than we have ever known before: this is a mission to a world almost wholly unknown to us despite the fact that we are neighbors in the same star system! Pluto has a distinctive reddish pinkish hue and features an array of high-contrast features (presumably composed of layers of exotic ices) which, to human eyes, superficially resemble familiar shapes. Most notable is a large cardiod-shaped feature in the southern hemisphere unsurprisingly dubbed “the heart”. There is also a planet sized stain resembling a whale and a smaller stain which looks like a donut. No doubt we will get a better idea about these bright/dark areas during the close-up approach next week. Right now I hope people are appreciating my artistic prescience!
The main thing which is currently striking to scientists (who have better things to worry about then whether methane ice looks like a whale) is how dissimilar Pluto is from its moon Charon. The two objects are closer size-wise than any other planet/moon system in the solar system, yet Charon is completely unlike Pluto in appearance and make-up. The moon, which is named after the ferryman of the underworld, is gray and nearly featureless and has no atmosphere (I should have mentioned that Pluto does have an atmosphere—at least at this phase of its strange orbit).
Hooray for New Horizons! Considering where it is and what it is currently doing, I almost find it hard to think of it as real, but it most assuredly is. Also hooray for us! We have some bad moments, but we can launch a highly functional robot out of Earth’s gravity well to the edge of the solar system! It isn’t a space colony on Venus—but it’s a start. Our arms are growing longer and our apprehension keener. I almost can’t wait for next week, yet somehow I think I’ll still manage to enjoy the weekend.
I have been living on rice and pulses for weeks (pulses=lentils, split peas, red beans, pink beans, black beans, pinto beans, chickpeas…you get the idea). These foods deserve their own posts, not just for keeping me alive in this narrow stretch, but because they are also some of the first crops of humankind (and our history with them goes back way longer than that). However, as much as I love my chili and curries, tonight I couldn’t bear to look at the crock of chana masala. Plus I somehow managed to complete my training as a new employee of [Redacted], the regimented and tight-fisted financial firm where I am improbably quartermaster, and I felt like celebrating the fact that I made it through a (mostly) full week of grueling work alive.
So I gathered up my nickels and bought one of the cheapest meats available at the supermarket to make a strange poultry feast. Now this is one of my favorite meals, but it is kind of a monster’s dinner–and it is definitely made of meat! My readers who are vegetarians…or even just squeamish may want to skip this cooking post [ED: Why is a recipe post even here?] and come back tomorrow for Fourth of July stuff.
OK, we are making delicious chicken livers with onions in creamy marjoram vermouth sauce! I usually eat it on a bed of yellow rice, but it is really a French meal and it also works well on buttery mashed potatoes, if you want to make those. The key to the meal is fresh undamaged livers without gall bladders…but your only clue in the supermarket is color so this is sort of a Russian roulette meal. Just buy the freshest looking chicken livers and you’ll probably be fine.
Drain the chicken livers (which, rather unpleasantly, come floating in a little plastic cup of chicken blood) and dredge them in a deep plate of plain flour with a pinch of salt mixed in. I threw away one of the livers that looked like it came from a chicken with a serious drinking problem, but all of the livers smelled good (if they smell rancid or bilious, you uh probably need a new batch). Keep the bloody flour—you’ll need it! Grease a large solid frying pan with a bit of olive oil and start frying the livers on medium heat. A lid really helps if you have one!
I then chop up a medium onion and get a handful of wonderful marjoram from the garden. Flip the livers and throw a large pat of butter in the pan. When the butter melts and starts sizzling, put the onions in and flip them around so they don’t burn.
Add the chopped marjoram and some dry thyme and turn the flame down and put the lid on. Now mix the bloody flour with water till it becomes a viscous paste. The livers should be browned and firm and the onions transparent. Pour the flour water into the pan. Cook covered for a few minutes over low heat and then add a liberal splash of dry vermouth. If the gravy looks too thick, just ad some water and turn up the heat. Slosh everything around delicately with a spatula and add some sea salt to taste. Let the meal simmer on low heat till it looks right and then let it rest while you rice finishes (this all goes really fast).
The meal looks like brown glop with horrible livers and dispiriting brown bits floating in it. It smells like butter, onions, trace elements, and cooked viscera. Sadly I forgot to take a picture before I fell on it and devoured it like a savage—so you can’t see how ugly it looks. Yet, when it comes out right, it is one of my best meals (and I’m a very good chef). I always imagine it being cooked by some sad scary old French man who lives alone in a forest, but when you get to know him you realize that he is a visionary genius and his horrifying meal is a gourmet treat.
This post concerning chicken strayed pretty far from the beaten path, but now you have a gourmet dinner you can make for next to no money! Let me know if anybody makes it! I’m new to food blogging but it seems to be all the rage out there and I thought that this meal fills a peculiar sophisticated/impoverished/delicious niche!
So, I worked a five year old’s birthday party this past Saturday as a face painter. As I speculated beforehand, my young patrons asked for rainbows and unicorns (and one flower), which is good because the face paint was not the world’s most versatile medium! I don’t know if I could have painted a truly intricate subject with that goop…and it was more intimidating than you might expect to paint on the beautifully coiffed and perfectly attired little princesses of Park Slope (though in truth I think it would be intimidating to paint any person’s face for the same reason—you have to look directly at them and touch their face). I felt like one of the supporting characters in a Disney movie “’Here now, your highness…Don’t squirm so or it won’t look right!” Thank goodness I didn’t paint any mutant ponies, monster fairies, or melted peonies!
Anyway I really love painting & children & parties (and I needed the money) so the afternoon was delightful. Despite my time in the toy industry, I haven’t been to a five year old’s party since I was five. The guests seemed to enjoy the beauty and thrill of life and the event with rare zest! It reminded me of something else too. The children’s party outfits were the most beautiful possible colors—brilliant aqua, radiant pink, magenta, crimson, and glowing lavender. Then I looked at the parents sipping their cocktails and talking about jobs and international trade and real estate. All the adults were wearing sad dull colors like we had been impressed into some glum army of despair. What happened? Why do we shy away from color as we grow older? Color is one of life’s greatest delights. Are we afraid that we’ll rob it of its power if we overuse it (the children had no such qualms)? Or do we think the scintillant beauty of colorful garb will highlight the weaknesses of our own appearances and draw unwanted attention and unflattering comments?
I was forcefully reminded of the pretty corn snakes which lived in the fields and forests of the hill farm when I grew up. When they are newly hatched they glisten with bands of scarlet, orange, and luxurious cream, but when they grow into adult snakes their colors become muted and they blend in with the clay and the fallen leaves (the better to evade the attention of predators and to seize on unwary mice, I guess). Is it that way for adults? Unless we are pop stars on stage or master gunnery sergeants on parade, it is better not to draw too much attention or risk looking foolish with a garish combination. That strikes me as a sad way to live (although I guess it has a certain Puritan modesty and no small measure of self-interested cunning).
Of course a children’s birthday party is not the right place for grown-ups to get gussied up anyway (unless they are the clown, which I might have been). However as I transition back into office life, I notice everyone wears a lot of gray, taupe, khaki, and navy. I am sure that some of that is protective camouflage—it really is best to blend into the walls on Wall Street. But still, there is something unsatisfactory about our culture that it encourages drabness.
Sigh, maybe I need to move to India or Thailand. They are certainly calling me louder than my new life in title insurance!