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Today we feature something completely new for Ferrebeekeeper–a contest!  This challenge will test your acumen, breadth of knowledge, and grasp of cultural and biological material.  And this is not just for bragging rights (although those are certainly to be had); there is an actual prize–a good one.  Hopefully this contest will also simulate the joys of travel and the delight of discovery in this sad & locked-down era.

Here are the rules:  below are 13 images of things and 13 images of places.  Whoever is first to identify these images most correctly will win the prize–an original, unopened mint-condition box of “Safarimorphs” mix-and-match animal toys which I made when I was a foolish young person who believed that success could be had in America without selling out to a huge monopolistic corporation an entrepreneur.   Zoomorphs the company died a hideous death…but not because the toys lacked quality.  Even to this day, strangers still hunt me down on the internet trying to find if there are any toys left.  [Sean Connery voice] This is one of the very last boxes in existence so think carefully about your answers!

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Unfortunately there are some problems with web contests, like Google’s search-by-means-of-image feature (which is for losers, but will probably work).  Worst of all, I can’t imagine where to put the answers (my email sometimes plays havoc with unknown incoming messages) so we are going to have to put them in the comments below.  If you don’t see your answers at first, don’t worry, I will approve them in the order they come in (assuming you don’t cuss TOO much), but it does mean that other contestants can see your answers too, so consider carefully before posting!  Also, there could be multiple right answers–a featureless arid plain could be “The silk road”, or “Kazakhstan” or “a desert” or “The Northern Hemisphere” all of which are right, but some of which are more right. Our highly qualified and morally unimpeachable judges will determine the MOST right answers by means of secret deliberation to which there is no appeal.

The contest ends next Tuesday when I will announce the winner and give my own answers.  The number refers to the image immediately below it. Good luck and thank you for playing (and thank you even more for reading).  Speaking of reading, there are some hints for a lot of these in Ferrebeekeeper…somewhere in those 2000 posts before last week, so maybe you should browse the archives. OK! Here are the images:

THINGS:

1.

1

2.

two

3.

3

4.

4

5.

5

6.

6

7.

7

8.

8

9.

9

10.

10

11.

11

12.

12

13.

13

PLACES:

1.

ONE

2.2

3.

Three

4.

four

5.

five

6.

Six

7.

seven

8.eight

9.nine

10.

ten

11.

eleven

12.

dozen

13.

t

 

You probably know them all already…but at least the images look quite strange and impressive with this white box gallery format.  Post you answers below and good luck! Let me know if you have questions and thank you so much for everything.

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It is Earth Day again.This year the Earth actually is recovering (slightly) from humankind’s rapacious quest for unending resources and eternal growth…but only because we are all bottled up inside our domiciles angrily stewing.  Who knows what mischief we will get up to when we are allowed outside again?

I still think the natural habitat for humans is not the gentle mother planet, but the harsh depths of outer space–an environment more suited to our dark cunning, violent factionalism, and infinite appetite.  Admittedly, space is an inhospitable place of terrifying extremes…but it is rich in natural resources (and seemingly undeveloped).  To be succinct, it is exactly the sort of place that allows for infinite economic growth.  Unlike Earth, space would be unharmed by any status displays that weird billionaires want to indulge in.  By international/interplanetary treaty, Earth could be a sort of nature preserve where natural humans could dwell under extremely constrained terms for 4 score years. After that, they would have to either return fully to the Earth to lie forever beneath the hill, or go off-world, quaff immortality potions, mine asteroids, sleep for millennia in hypersleep, jump through wormholes, and what-have-you.

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Admittedly we don’t quite have the technology for this yet (though I feel that current engineering, aerospace, and ecological knowledge would actually allow for more spacefaring and spacesteading than we admit to ourselves).  But really think about how much more appealing it would be to live as a colonist/adventurer in the heavens than it is to be an indentured servant in some moronic cubicle farm here on Earth.

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We’re killing the planet for THIS?

Of course, right now I suspect there are readers who are shaking their heads and tutting and saying Earth Day is not about wild flights of imagination…it is about living sustainably!  But we have had fifty Earth Days,  A half century’s worth of ecological scolding and corporate greenwashing has not accomplished very much in terms of changing the way we live or the political/economic calculus which goes into our true global-level decision making.

This Earth Day affords us a real opportunity to truly think about where we are going at a species-wide level.  As soon as we are allowed outside we will go right back to running over baby skunks with SUVs and tossing PVC jugs into the ocean.  Primates are not my favorite life form, but I really do love humankind just the way we are: curious, insatiable, aggressive, and free.  I also truly, truly love our unique planet of dazzling, beautiful, irreplaceable webs of life.  We can not have both things if we keep going like we are now going. The point of no-return is no longer hundreds or thousands of years from now. It is now.

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So break out your biggest craziest concepts about how we can reconcile our huge coarse ambitions with our tiny fragile habitat. Write them down below and we will argue about them.  Send them to your senator and to the New York Times.  Let’s really have the conversations we have been tip-toeing around for five decades.  Otherwise in five more decades we won’t be arguing about how to float farms above Venus or seal the cracks in our domed city on Titan. Without better science, better politics and better IMAGINATION, we will be a bunch of shriveled mummies in a used-up necropolis planet of garbage, plastic, and dust.

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Balaam and the Angel (Gustav Jaeger, 1836), oil on canvas

Do you know the story of Balaam from the Old Testament?  Balaam was the greatest magician and prophet of the Moabites, who were the enemies of the Israelites (who were nearing the end of their exile in the desert under the leadership of the dying Moses).  In brief, Balaam was main villain of the final stage of the Exodus: sort of an anti-Moses.   If things were written from the point-of-view of the Moabites, Balaam would have been the hero! In fact, we even get POV episodes in the Bible which follow him on perilous magical missions…which are thwarted by the terrible power of God.

In the most (in)famous of these episodes, Balaam is riding off to commit some nefarious act when the donkey he is riding balks.  The donkey can see that there is a sword-wielding angel in the path in front of them.  In anger, Balaam savagely beats the donkey, which starts to speak!  Here is the episode as set forth in the King James Bible (Numbers 22):

And when the ass saw the angel of the Lord, she fell down under Balaam: and Balaam’s anger was kindled, and he smote the ass with a staff.

28 And the Lord opened the mouth of the ass, and she said unto Balaam, What have I done unto thee, that thou hast smitten me these three times?

29 And Balaam said unto the ass, Because thou hast mocked me: I would there were a sword in mine hand, for now would I kill thee.

30 And the ass said unto Balaam, Am not I thine ass, upon which thou hast ridden ever since I was thine unto this day? was I ever wont to do so unto thee? and he said, Nay.

31 Then the Lord opened the eyes of Balaam, and he saw the angel of the Lord standing in the way, and his sword drawn in his hand: and he bowed down his head, and fell flat on his face.

32 And the angel of the Lord said unto him, Wherefore hast thou smitten thine ass these three times? behold, I went out to withstand thee, because thy way is perverse before me:

33 And the ass saw me, and turned from me these three times: unless she had turned from me, surely now also I had slain thee, and saved her alive.

34 And Balaam said unto the angel of the Lord, I have sinned; for I knew not that thou stoodest in the way against me: now therefore, if it displease thee, I will get me back again.

So what is the point of this story?  I suppose a rabbi or a Catholic priest would tell you it is about how it is futile to withstand the command of YWEH or some kind of hegemonic orthodox lesson of that sort (indeed, Balaam is frequently stuck in situations where he can perceive that his actions will not alter what is to come). Fortunately, we don’t actually believe in a giant omniscient space wizard in the sky, so we can look at the passage with a more literary eye.

And, it makes for an intriguing metaphor about humankind’s relationship with the natural world! Balaam’s donkey is perfectly capable of seeing the angel and she tries to save her human rider, who pays her back by intemperately beating her (despite her leal service) . Poor wicked Balaam is unable to figure out what is going on (even with the donkey telling him) until the angel sighs heavily and expositions the whole thing for him.  His desire for power and status are so great that he ignores what the long-suffering animal ass tells him, first with her actions, and then when she speaks with the very voice of God.

Of course the real world does not benefit from invisible angels or talking donkeys, so here we have something more like Raskolnikov’s dark dream from Crime and Punishment (where a drunk peasant beats his suffering old horse to death for failing to pull a load which he (the peasant) had loaded too heavily).  Everywhere we look we see that animals are dying from our crazy desperate actions.  Do we pause to heed this horrible lesson? Do we ask whether a dark angel of doom stands invisible yet implacable immediately before us?  No! We curse the oceans for not having enough fish. We execrate the bats for harboring coronavirus.  We shoot the polar bears for starving to death in a desolation we have created.

Of course Balaam is hardly a free agent.  He has a king who commands him to act as he does. He has a nation of people to save from invaders. He has to buy provender for his donkey and altar accessories and who knows what else.  We would probably feel sorely used if we were in his sandals.  Indeed, that is part of what makes me think we ARE Balaam. Right now the donkey we are riding is starting to fall down.  Are we asking the right questions about our own actions or are we reaching for the rod?

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Greetings from New York City in this, the year of the plague, 2020.  I wanted to write about something today other than coronavirus, since we don’t seem to have actually learned much new information about the virus itself (or if we have, it is information in peer-to-peer medical journals about immunoglobulins, virology statistics, lipid membranes and whatnot). However, whenever I try to write anything else, I keep getting distracted and looking at frothy coronavirus articles, which are really opinion pieces about political or business concerns. Clearly the only subject anyone cares about is novel coronavirus, so why force myself to write a piece about sidewinders or limpets? But what do we write about?

We already explored the hypothesized snake/bat zoonotic leap (concerning which matters I have never heard any further news) and we have talked about the “crown” (corona) embedded in the very name of this virus. I suppose we could write about the President’s stunning incompetence, but we already know that this authoritarian dolt is at best a conman, and, more likely, likely an outright traitor who owes billions of dollars to Russian mobster (of course, if that isn’t the case, he can easily prove this hypothesis wrong by releasing comprehensive financial records).

But our horrible president is not my real target here. I want toget back to talking about an enormous issue that our nation has been failing to deal with: the disastrous trope that “government is the problem”.  This concept was cooked up by libertarian plutocrats as a tool for embezzling, defrauding, and plundering the country and it continues to undermine our collective well-being.  It is insidious because it is self-fulfilling.  As  government is defunded and abused, it keeps getting worse.  The plutocrats (or their mouthpieces) then say: “See: government doesn’t work! Only private industry produces results!” (although when the economy crashes they demand bailouts for their too-big-to-fail cartels).

Not many people love heeding rules (even good ones). As the government is captured by the people it is meant to regulate, the rules become even more onerous and complicated…and yet they don’t seem to address root problems (does this sound familiar?)  This isn’t because of the nature of government! It is because moneyed interests are taking advantage of society!

If this continues, within a few years we will all be sitting in cardboard boxes in the toxic runoff of dead factories talking about how America is the world’s greatest country as other places sale past us.  In fact, that sort of sounds like now, doesn’t it?

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We have been on the wrong path for forty years and yet we knowingly continue to walk down it.  Coronavirus offers us a chance to get off this evil road to serfdom and ignorance. The goal of society is not making a bunch of cartoonish monopoly men much richer.  The goal of society is to learn more about existence.  That knowledge can be further utilized for saving the world’s ecosystems, and making ark-ships, immortality potions, and all-powerful robot servants.  It could be used to keep you and your family healthy and prevent you from dying from zoonotic viruses, Or it could be used for other aims, or for nothing at all!  Knowledge stands beyond mere utility. It is not merely a means to an ends, but arguably the most precious of ends already, just in its own right.

Private enterprise is incurious about learning things unless there is a way to immediately use that knowledge to make money.  Since this is almost never the way that knowledge works, private enterprise shirks away from from learning things. It revels in ignorance.  This is why humankind’s forward technological progress has halted except for very slight incremental progress in consumer-side fields like robotics and computer science.

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Whether the doomsayers are proven right and coronavirus kills hundreds of thousands (or millions) of people, or whether quarantines and restrictions succeed in mitigating casualties, this crisis has already reminded us of something critical.  Government is not the enemy.  Government is us.  We need to de-monetize politics to whatever extent we can (and throw quite a lot of white-collar criminals in jail) and we need to get back to research and development.  We can once again be a nation that makes astonishing discoveries and builds incredible things and helps people.  Right now we are not headed that direction.  Do you really want to keep going this way?  Think about it as you weather this crisis.  Also, best wishes to you and your families!  As always, let me know what you think in the comments below.

 

 

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Whether he acknowledges it or not, tonight marks the end of Bernie Sanders’ candidacy for the presidency.  This year’s primaries have been a white-hot crucible, and many of the assertions upon which Sanders based his hopes were assayed away in the flames.  Young voters did not show up in record droves.  There was no great untapped seam of voters at the left (or if there is, they still didn’t vote).  The Democratic party has been surprisingly effective, disciplined, & solid (who ever thought we would be writing those words?) and has come together to support the candidate who has the best shot at beating Trump and delivering the Senate to blue control.  Key portions of the Democratic coalition–African American voters and older working class voters–seem to actually like the affable gaffe-meister (as do all-important suburban swing voters).  College educated white voters preferred Warren, but will no doubt flock to Biden to beat the loathed Trump.  Unhappy outsiders, such as Latino voters, idealists,  actual socialists, and fired-up “Bernie bros” will have to come into the fold or else risk four more years of Trump’s mendacity, incompetence and criminality.  If Traitor Trump does somehow win despite his monstrous acts, I frankly doubt the constitution or the democracy will survive (indeed we citizens probably won’t survive either: Trump’s hideously bungled response to 2019-nCoV is already casting doubt upon our continued existence).

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I never got to write out the presidential endorsement which was in my heart, but that’s ok.  Even at its best (which we are very far away from) politics is a sloppy business. I assure you I WILL find lots of things to love and praise about good ol’ Joe Biden.  Before we get into that in earnest though and start the Biden V. Trump slugfest, I would like to ask Joe Biden to reexamine a mistake from the dawn of his national political career. I want to go back in time to 1974 and ask everyone to rethink some choices which were made during that politically explosive year.

Before 1974, the Democratic Party busted up monopolies and trusts.  The old guard left in the party from FDR’s days (!) made it a point to do so because their youth had been dominated by fighting the terrible political hegemony of oligarchs and anti-competitive-corporations. Because of Nixon’s criminal misbehavior, a whole new crop of junior senators was swept into power in 1974 and the ancient trust-busters were turfed out of their last leadership positions.  The Democrats who I have lived with my whole life (like Joe Biden) come from that era.  Anti-trust does not seem to be a priority to them, either because they also suffer from a degree of monetary capture, or because other issues of social justice and cultural warfare seemed more important to them.  This was a terrible mistake!

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Elizabeth Warren knows that the virtues of capitalism cease to be virtues and become terrible chains if there is no actual competition in the marketplace.  That is the reason her highly educated supporters like her so much! Bernie Sanders had all sorts of regulatory plans ready for today’s cartels and oligopolies (the forms of trust have become more subtle since the 20s and 30s) but it doesn’t seem like we will see his revolutionary zeal come to flower. Bloomberg’s sixty billion dollar personal fortune came directly from his monopolistic business practices (so perhaps he would not have pushed for necessary reforms).  What about Joe Biden?

Trust busting is not going to be easy.  Price-fixing, regulatory capture, lobbyist written legislation, monopsony labor markets and lots of new game-changing anti-competitive tricks and tools have given the trusts a huge advantage (just look at your cable bill or at our nightmarish health care cartel). Yet these trusts are destroying our culture and indeed our very ability to survive! They must be fought and vanquished.  It will take enormous effort from all people of good conscience (and it is going to take a lot of patient explaining, because this all-important issue doesn’t fit easily into moronic soundbites).

I am going to be supporting Joe Biden as much as I can.  But Joe, please look at this issue and think about how you can save capitalism from itself and give us all an America worth working for! This all went wrong in 2016 (just look at this post from back then).  In 2020 we need to master our passions and use all of our strength to get things right.

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I haven’t written about last week–which was about the most miserable week which American democracy has endured since 2016 (or maybe since the 1960s…or the 1930s).  Like most good-hearted people, I have been feeling quite depressed about the sordid Senatorial acquittal of our very-obviously-criminal president…and about said criminal president’s ridiculous State of the Union speech…and about the disastrous Iowa caucuses…and about the reprisals and threats against witnesses and career civil servants coming from the White House (and its lapdog GOP)…and about, sigh, about the galloping authoritarian rot which is destroying the nation.  The only way to stop the gangrene in our political body is to cut off the afflicted parts (ahem, any GOP politician other than Mitt Romney) by sweeping the bounders, liars, traitors, thieves, and enablers of the Republican Party out of office in November’s election.

Which brings us to the subject of today’s post: this troubling article which is worth reading in its entirety at The Week.  To quickly summarize, the author believes that Bernie Sanders is unelectable because greedy Wall Street bankers dislike him.  However even if he (Sanders) were somehow elected and Democrats also swept both houses of the legislature, still nothing would change.  The fact that Sanders is doing well in the primaries and yet the market has not crashed proves this point!  It is sort of a peculiar and vacuous argument, yet it makes me furious.  The author asks whether successful business lords and fiance moguls are worried about the possibility of a Sanders presidency upsetting their cozy financial plantation and he answers:

…that’s not how Big Money sees things playing out. “A whopping 80-90 percent of participants at our client conferences thought that President Trump would win re-election in November,” Goldman Sachs noted in a recent report. With the unemployment rate at a half-century low and economic confidence at a 20-year high, it seems inconceivable to many investors that voters wouldn’t return Trump to office. For this crowd, prediction markets are as important, if not more so, than polling. And they show Trump as the favorite over the Democrats, with the exception of Mike Bloomberg.

The author is from the American Enterprise Institute (a right-wing economic think tank) and therefore he doesn’t believe in democracy unless it is a rubber stamp for some elaborate rent-seeking project from his paymasters in high finance.  I was going to excoriate him more about cultural and foreign affairs issues, but he seems indifferent to such things, and mostly concentrates on economic policy. In fact, in many ways he and I have disturbingly similar points of view: we believe that the nation’s largest problem is underinvestment in research and infrastucture.  We are both technophiles. He is even an enthusiatic supporter of space exploration!

But there the similarities end. Pethokoukis believes that medical care should cost as much (and be as ineffectual) as possible.  He believes that monopolies should run rampant and unchecked.  He believes that white collar crime should go unpunished and giant multinational companies should not be regulated by the government. In short he is a pro-business enthusiast of the status quo.

So why does this silly short article make me so angry?

I have some friends in the Wall Street world, and after they have had a few drinks, they confide that a shocking number of their fellow finance titans and hedge fund folks support Donald Trump at the ballot box (and with huge donations).  These are not under-educated people who have been dazzled by the bits of Hollywood tinsel or false piety which Trump wears as a costume (albeit a costume which is even less believable than that awful fake tan ).  They fully understand the President’s incompetence, ignorance, corruption, and racism.  They also can see the damage that this fascist dolt is doing to the nation’s well being and future prospects.  Yet they simply don’t care.  Since they are getting such astronomical kickbacks…er tax cuts, the idea of the degradation or collapse of the United States doesn’t bother them:  they will simply fly off to Zurich in their helicopters and private jets. They are willing to pay to keep Donald Trump in place even though they know he is extremely detrimental to society.

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So what the author doesn’t quite say openly is that Wall Street IS Donald Trump. They have the same interests: (1) making as much money as possible through any means; and (2) ensuring that they “win” no matter what the cost to other people or the world.  The market makers don’t really care about the long term, or the medium term, or anything at all other than their bank balance in the immediate present. They don’t even care about the free market–it is “free” only in name and is really a done deal where the winners have already been chosen by collusion, insider deals, and price-fixing.

I simply have no idea about whether Sanders can win either the Democratic nomination or the presidency.  I don’t agree with everything he supports, but he is earnest, hard-working, and concerned about the serious degradation of our nation which has happened during the last few decades.  His sympathy for the working class is not a sham, like Trump’s pretend love for coal miners, factory workers and farmers (although I worry that Trump somehow intuits how to communicate with wage-slaves better than Sanders does). One would think that such things will appeal to anyone not wearing political blinders but our ongoing political crisis is making it difficult to predict or even understand how voters (or anyone) will react to things.  Also, everyone older than I am remembers communists and socialists as despised national enemies.  We will get back to Sanders in future posts.  I don’t think he is the real subject of Pethokoukis’s article.  The real premise is that the market (and market makers) are infallible.

So what truly infuriates me about this article is its smug faith in a free market which doesn’t exist.  Pethokoukis pretends the market is all-knowing (and that it has completely dismissed Sanders before he has even secured the nomination!) but what he is really writing about is a cabal among the management elite who control the system grasp for short-term profit.  Of course such people are fine with Donald Trump (just as the latter is unable to see how extorting foreign aid to win the election is problematic).  It is maddening!  The people who have subalterned free competition,  smugly assure us that everything is very fair, unless someone with different ideas has any chance of winning.  then they threaten to upend the system and destroy everything.  I guess this article strikes me as the real Wall Street response to the the impeachment debacle. Yes Trump is as guilty as possible but that is fine because it benefits us personally.  Just as the Senate’s terrible impeachment acquittal vote left American voters as prey to dark money and foreign interference, Pethokoukis attitude leaves small investors at the mercy of finance titans who can and will punish us if they aren’t guaranteed carte blanche to do exactly as they like.

 

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Pseudoscience, quackery, “magic”, and deceptive supernatural practices meant to defraud people (often including the practitioner…for our need to believe in things is deep and desperate indeed) are as old as humankind, but I doubt that many schools of augury are quite as outwardly preposterous as myomancy, divination by means of rats and mice.

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The Romans were into augury of every sort, but they seem to have had a particular fondness for myomancy, and Pliny the Elder refers to it directly several times in his histories (although, in the end, all that study of rat augury doesn’t seem to have kept him safe from unexpected volcanic eruptions).  Myomancy could be “practiced” by freeing rats or mice and seeing which way they fled, by watching the rodents navigate mazes/pictograms, or by simply observing their lives in the wild.

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This last “wild” myomancy was perhaps the most highly regarded, yet it was also the most rare and spontaneous.  Mice and rats were sometimes thought to scream out before a disaster…or to just run away before a calamity.   If rats suddenly fled a house or community, it was thought to be bad luck of the most astonishing sort. Likewise. if a huge number of rats or mice simply appeared, it betokened a coming war or illness.  If rodents were spotted gnawing clothing (or, worse, armor or military equipment) it was regarded as a sign of incipient defeat.

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Now, animals perhaps don’t have occult connections to the forces of fate and divinity, but they have extreme sensory acuity (or sometimes they have entire senses we lack!).  Modern scientists have noticed that animals, particularly rats and mice, can predict earthquakes or extreme weather events.  Rats and mice are sensitive to air changes which betoken fire, pollution, or anoxygenic conditions.  Additionally, if a bunch of rats suddenly appear seemingly out of nowhere it is a pretty dire sign that something has gone very wrong with some fundamental link in an ecosystem.  Famine or pestilence may indeed be on the way.  The link between rats and bubonic plague is direct and (now) well known.  If rats start stumbling out of the woodwork and dying, collect all of your strongest antibiotics and RUN.

So I started this post by belittling myomancy, which certainly sounds less august than reading the stars or speaking to the dead or what have you.  However, on closer examination, it seems like myomancy might provide some real and useful information, which other schools of augury lack entirely.  This is not because myomancy is magical, but instead because rats and mice are clever and sensitive and must stay hyper-alert to survive in a world of poisons, predators, giants, and catastrophes.  Pliny the Elder was one of the forefathers of the natural sciences–perhaps we can still learn some things from him (see more next week), so keep an eye out for mysterious rodent happenings.  You never know what they will tell you! If Pliny hadn’t gotten distracted by the giant mushroom cloud above Vesuvius, he probably would have noticed rats running the other way as fast as they could.

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Happy Year of the Metal Rat!  The Chinese new year 4717 really started on January 25th, 2020, however, since the celebration is ongoing (as is the year!), let’s talk about what we can expect from a rat year.  In the twelve year Chinese zodiac cycle, the rat comes first (which means we are starting a whole new cycle).  The folklore reason that the rat is the first year is humorous and instructive: the Jade Emperor hosted a party for the astrological animals and he decided that the order of years would be set by when they arrived at the party.  The rat rode to the party on the stalwart ox’s back but then when he saw the party food (or maybe the supreme monarch of heaven), he distracted the ox and leaped across the threshold first!

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As pictured in this stirring artwork…

In the non-zodiac world, there are quite a few people who have a negative opinion of (real) rats, but Chinese astrology in no way shares this outlook concerning the versatile rodent.  Rats are regarded as clever, successful, optimistic, and likable. Because of their ability to survive and reproduce even in harsh or inimical circumstances, rats are seen as symbolic of resourcefulness and fertility (it seems like Chinese culture-makers were actually paying attention to how rats came by their worldwide success).  People born in rat years are regarded as problem solvers who are good with money and have the ability to turn unexpected problems into opportunities (tigers, like me, are instead gifted with the ability to turn unexpected problems into histrionic emotional events…but fortunately we also have the ability to make everything about ourselves).

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How did this beautiful and stirring tiger get in here?

Metal rats are most famed for…uh having a predictable and stable life (sigh). So I guess children born into this year can expect to live a life utterly unlike this year.  Also, apparently rats’ lucky flower is the African violet and their unlucky color is brownish yellow.  It is extraordinary what can be learned during 4717 years!

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Actual rats are one of the most interesting and successful creatures in existence.  Their strategy…and their fate has mirrored humankind’s own strange journey, and our two species are rarely far apart.  Thus we will celebrate the year of the metal rat by talking more about actual rats during the course of the week.  So steel yourself, real rats are even more intelligent and likable than the fictional ones, but they are more relentless and disturbing as well.

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Before we get to that though, maybe enjoy some hot pot and dumplings while you can!  Humans and rats alike both know to take advantage of any opportunity for food and fun!

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Virgin and Child Enthroned, with Prophets (Cimabue, ca. 1290-1300), tempera on wood

Cimabue was the link between Byzantine art and the art of the Renaissance. His use of shaded form and realistic proportion would lead to a sweeping revolution in painting, yet his work maintains the stolid architectural grandeur (and sloe-eyed otherworldliness) of art from the eastern empire.  According to Vasari, Cimabue was Giotto’s master, and although scholars have disputed it based on enigmatic sentences in ancient documents, artists accept it as truth because there is so much of Cimabue in Giotto’s works. This painting originally hung in the Vallombrosians church of Santa Trinita in Florence (Cimabue was a Florentine).

Although the Madonna and Roman-philosopher-attired Baby Jesus (and their bevy of dusky angels with ultramarine/scarlet wings) are quite grand, my favorite part of the composition is the giant strange ivory throne they are seated upon and the Old Testament prophets arrayed along the bottom.  From left to right these are Jeremiah, Abraham, David (see his little crown), and Isaiah.  They are reading and writing in phylacteries and the two prophet prophets, Jeremiah and Isaiah are looking up at the messiah, a sight they never beheld, yet beheld before all others.

There is a scene in the Harry Potter books when all the hidden wizards are gathered together, and they start using more and more ostentatious magic to show off (thus flouting the astringent & terrifying rules of the hegemonic ruling conclave).  The senior adult wizard turns to the protagonists and observes, “Always the same…We can’t resist showing off when we get together.”

I suspect a lot of readers are smugly noting that wizards aren’t really real, (which is true), but those books were about very real things, and I feel like Arthur Weasley hit directly upon one of humankind’s biggest issues.  Most of the things we work for don’t actually have much to do with our actual needs, but involve instead the desperate struggle for higher status. Showing off is what humans do.

This quest is woven through every human endeavor: the gardener trying to hybridize a novel color of rose, the actor trying to be even more intensely emotional, and the fashionista trying to wear ever-more extravagant get-ups are all trying to aggrandize their social standing by impressing the right people.  However not only are people part of a status game when they are doing what they themselves are good at: they are part of somebody else’s status game when they do pretty much anything.

When you spend all day working on moronic busywork at an ugly office, you are really a fractional part of a column of some CEO’s spreadsheet which is about him making more money. The great masters are hoarding all of the world’s wealth so they can buy tacky mansions, Bugattis, and super yachts, yes, but mostly so they can point to a number on a computer screen to impress other super oligarchs.

There is nothing wrong with this per se.  Human life is quite complicated and we need ways to quantify who the high status apes are (so that we can apportion resources and mates and what not). Isn’t it better we show off with hybridized roses and new fashions and financial acumen then with battle prowess and physical violence?

Well yes it probably is; but I worry that the oceans are filling with plastic and the atmosphere with carbon because we are not managing this mad primate howl of SELF SELF SELF very well at all. We could be having status battles over scholarship and science rather than the nakedly venal and meretricious (and consumerist!) contests which most of us seem engaged in.

Something I want to write more about is “the red queen effect”, the idea that you have to compete harder and harder and harder to maintain the same relative place.  The term comes from the realm of evolutionary biology where it betokens the concept that ptarmigans have to fly faster to avoid gyrfalcons and thus gyrfalcons have to fly faster to catch these faster ptarmigans: soon everyone is flying much faster! [an even more germane example vis a vis human status relationships might be the Irish Elk’s mighty antlers: which were apparently a sexual display]. Human society is a synthetic ecosystem of sorts.  The constant future shock we now live in doesn’t just have to do with the rapid advance of technology.  It has to do with the proliferation of new realms of status posing. Not only are you failing to keep up with the Joneses: You are failing to keep up with everyone! Quick! Buy more plastic crap!  this feedback loop impacts us in ways which are so universal they swiftly become unnoticeable [stops writing and checks site stats and posts to Instagram]. Then we wonder why we are spending all day doing things we despise and somehow using up the Earth in the process.  I want to write more about some of the ramifications of this and we can brainstorm about we can maybe channel this inextinguishable competitive status drive in more productive directions.

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