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It is World Elephant Day! August 12th is set aside for the contemplation of the greatest land mammal (and maybe the greatest animal overall) the wise, compassionate, beautiful, imperiled elephant. Elephants are my favorite animals! I truly love them so much (admittedly at a distance)…yet I only just got home and I have to get to bed so I cannot write the story I want to tell—of heroic Yao Ming trying to save the world’s elephants. Instead I am going to save that story for a day when I have more time and just do a gallery post of elephant mosaics.
Some of these tile artworks of the noble beasts are pretty good, but none of the works really do the great proboscideans full justice. Clearly there are going to have to be more elephant posts before next August! In the meantime, keep talking about elephants and campaigning for them among your friends and peers. A world without elephants would not be a worthwhile place. They are a critical piece of the great mosaic of life!
Yet another summer day has ineluctably slipped through my fingers. What with work, friends, art, and the great human endeavor there was no time to find out about crab-eating seals or exoplanets for today’s post. Fortunately I have my little book of fun sketches for such occasions (for those of you who just walked in, this is the small sketchbook I carry around and sketch in during downtime like the subway or lunch). Above is my favorite of the three selected sketches for today. I imagine it as being the dramatic climax of an unknown ballet where a tribe of sylphs confront the underworld demon-god and wage a tremendous dance battle with him on behalf of their upstanding moral principles (actually I think that might be an actual ballet). In the real world, the pink and blue and yellow all blend together more seamlessly, but I guess I am stuck with what my camera can manage under halogen light.
In the second picture a shipwreck at the bottom of the Indian Ocean is the scene for wayang theater, written edicts, and ghostly machinations. It seems like the picture might be about the Dutch East India Company or some other Indonesian colonial enterprise. At any rate, the great flesh colored sawfish who appeared from nowhere steals the scene from the human agencies (although the brain coral seems to also be in the know).
Finally I included a geometric doodle of a colorful cityscape. I sketched this on the train after a frustrating day of work. My colleague was out that day, so I spent the entire workday trying to answer two to six confusing phone calls every minute for hours on end. I was thoroughly frustrated with New York and cursing the entire beastly expensive overrated mess when I got on a train car which had a foul smelling beggar in it. Because of the smell, the train car was unusually empty at rush hour and I opted to remain on it so I could I could sit down and draw. I sketched away furiously as the car stopped underground and lingered forever in a tunnel beneath the East River. The beggar got off in Brooklyn Heights and I kept sketching, but I was still angry at everything. When I was almost home (which is near the end of the 2 line) the woman who had been silently riding next to me the whole time quietly said ‘you are a great artist” which really turned around the bad day. I am not sure the picture merits such a statement, but the comment made me feel great and stood as a powerful reminder of what a large effect small actions and statements can have. I hope that kindly stranger is reading my blog so I can thank her properly for her words. They meant a lot to me.
It has been a long time since we had a mollusk post, so today let’s enjoy a post about squid, octopuses, and extinct nautiloids…and knitting. Apparently the characteristic tubes and whorls formed by knitting can be easily adapted to produce lovely tentacled plush characters. Sadly, I am a terrible knitter (or, more accurately, not a knitter) but I appreciate the art. Also, as a toy maker I have a professional interest in these plush toys, even if they are not necessarily in my own area of specialty.
Look at how cute the squids and extinct cephalopods are. Some of these designs are truly ingenious, like the red squid at the top, or the belemnites immediately below. I wish I had had some of these as a child to pair with my beloved dinosaur stuffed animals and toys. When I was young, I was unhappy that it was so difficult to get toys of prehistoric ocean creatures other than plesiosaurs (and frankly even those were hard to come by). Even if it is still hard to get mass-produced orthocones and ammonites, these beautiful hand-made pieces certainly help fill the gap. Now your plush ichthyosaur will have something to predate! Or, if your toy collection is more modern, you will have the right character for stinging the Australian PM.
I wish I could tell you more about how these are made and where you could get the patterns, but it seems like a certain expertise in the textile arts is required. I only know the difference between what is felted and what is knitted. My mother, however, has a lovely yarn store in Parkersburg, West Virginia and she is an expert at every aspect of knitting, crocheting, weaving, and sewing. I am sure she could explain to you how to make any of these creatures (or any other lovable knitted or felted animal toys)…provided you bought the yarn from her store.
Aren’t these all adorable. They make me want to get back into toy making and create “My Little Squiddy.”
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.