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To celebrate the beginning of the twenties, Ferrebeekeeper featured a wish-list article which requested (1) democratic reforms, and (2) more money for scientific research.  Today we are following up on the second part of that post with a somewhat dispiriting report from the boringly named National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics (a federal statistical agency within the National Science Foundation).   As you might imagine, the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics has compiled a list of statistics concerning the state of science and engineering in the USA (it is their mission to present such a report to Congress every two years).

The report concentrates on 2017, when the United States spent $548 billion on research and development–more than any other nation! However the report also analyzes larger R&D trends among all nations over time–which makes our relative decline more apparent.  In 2000, nearly 40% of the worldwide R&D budget was spent here in America. By 2017, the total world R&D budget was 2 trillion dollars, which means the American share is down to (approximately) 25%.

You would probably guess that a lot of the new worldwide R&D budget is Chinese, and that is correct.  The report’s authors speculate that by 2019 (which was too recent for the statisticians to have comprehensive numbers) the Chinese R&D budget actually surpassed the American research budget.  I guess we will see.  China tends to spend more money on applied research, whereas we are still world leaders in blue-sky research, but they are catching up everywhere.

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More and more national wealth is being pointlessly hoarded by robber barons.  Do these plutocrats imagine they will live forever? Why not spend their ill-gotten lucre on developing robot workers, immortality potions, and alligator soldiers to guard them against popular insurrection?  Even if the prospect of astonishing & miraculous innovations don’t beguile the Davos class, you would think the prospect of Chinese supremacy in tomorrow’s marketplace and battlefield would get them to spend more money on the lab.   In the lack of business/private leadership (which, frankly, hasn’t been leading America to anywhere other than the underworld anyway) the solution is obvious.  Write to your elected officials and demand more money go to scientific research.  The future is on the line (and I wouldn’t mind some immortality potions and omniscient robot servants, even if the 1% don’t care for such things).



Today’s post about pigeons is a real eye popper! This is the Budapest Short-faced Tumbler Pigeon, a breed of fancy pigeon renowned for having huge bubble eyes. Just look at those colossal peepers! To quote the language of fancy pigeon-keeping, “…the beak, while being short and thick, is straight set.  The large eyes are pearl in color with thick almost frog-like ceres.”  That hardly seems to do justice to eyes which seem like they could belong to a peregrine falcon or a colossal squid!


Darwin famously conceived part of his theory of evolution from observing the shortest & newest branches of the phylogenetic tree limb of Galapagos finches: however the other part of his theory came from his own English country hobby of breeding fancy pigeons.  Using artificial selection to create hugely exaggerated features (like absurd google eyes and a minuscule beak) helped him understand that a similar dynamic was at work in his pigeon cote and on the newly separated Galapagos islands.


Of course this doesn’t explain the eyes of these particular pigeons. The Budapest Short-faced Tumbler Pigeon did indeed originate in Budapest in the first decade of the twentieth century.  The birds were bred by the Poltl brothers, a family of pigeon racing enthusiasts who wanted a high flying bird with incredible endurance.  I guess the tiny beak must save weight, and the big eyes allow for higher flying?  Can any pigeon racers back this up?  Whatever the mechanism, the Poltl brothers succeeded: the original Budapest Short-faced Tumbler Pigeons were able to stay in the air longer than other breeds and they flew at a greater height.  Unfortunately this also meant that more of them were lost (both to nervous disposition and to the perils of the open sky).


Anyway, today these pigeons are more famous as charismatic pets than as racers.  They reputedly have a very affectionate and alert temperament (with perhaps a trace of their original nervous disposition).  I am not sure I have the patient temperament necessary to push against the bounds of nature as a fancy pigeon breeder, but I am glad that someone is doing so just so we have the Budapest Short-faced Tumbler Pigeon to look at!


I have lived in my neighborhood for a while now, but it is a place with a lot going on and so I am still constantly surprised to find that I live right next to railroads, department stores, cemeteries, or universities which I didn’t know existed for all of these years.  This sort of thing doesn’t just happen in Brooklyn: it is true for the whole solar system.  Astronomers just discovered the largest mega-structure in the Milky Way Galaxy, a swooping ribbon of hot gas and baby stars now known as “the Radcliffe Wave.”  The wave begins 500 light-years below the Milky Way’s disk at a spot in the night sky around Orion, and runs through the constellations Taurus and Perseus to wind up near the constellation Cepheus (and 500 light years above the galactic plane).


The Radcliffe Wave is about 9,000 light-years in length–roughly a tenth the diameter of the galaxy–and is though to contain about 800 million stars (as a quick refresher, our own sun has a mass about 333,000 times that of Earth).  Scientists have noticed pieces of the wave before, since it is a hot zone filled with tumultuous stellar nurseries where bright young stars emerge from vast clouds of gas, yet they did not realize it was a continuous ribbon.

The ribbon is relatively close to Earth, too.  To quote João Alves, the co-author of the Nature article about the Radcliffe Wave, “The sun lies only 500 light-years from the wave at its closest point. It’s been right in front of our eyes all the time, but we couldn’t see it until now.” Five hundred light years is not exactly a drive to the strip mall (it is a distance of 4,730,000,000,000,000 kilometers!), but we have been through the Radcliffe Wave 13 million years ago and the solar system is projected to pass into it in again in another 13 million years.


Astronomers are interested in the wave, but they are even more interested in why is exists to begin with.  Alves speculates that it was created in the same manner that ripples are made in the water of a pond when something exceedingly massive lands in it.  What would be massive enough to make ripples in a galaxy?  Another galaxy? Some sort of black hole biz? A giant hunk of dark matter?  Who knows? (although this older post about giant voids in space might be somewhat instructive in talking about space’s busy neighborhoods too). We only just discovered the Radcliffe Wave and we will have to start working to figure out where it originated and what it means.  After all, we will be there surfing it in a mere 13 million years. Kowabunga, space dudes!


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Happy 2020!  This first Ferrebeekeeper post of the (de-facto) new decade arrives on January 2nd, a historically glum day, as people leave holiday merriment behind and return to their futile dayjobs.  As far as we can currently tell, the ‘teens were not a good decade.  Not only were there few major scientific or technological breakthroughs (beyond garden-variety “slightly better fuel economy” sorts of things), but, even worse, all of the politically expedient bunts which spineless or feckless leaders have made since the Cold War began to truly catch up to the world’s great democracies.  Again and again, government figures of intellect, probity, and conscience were outmaneuvered by sinister oligarchs and pro-business cartels who used dark money, demagogic tricks, manipulative new technology, and straight-up cheating to thwart the popular will. The decade’s putative bright spot, a roaring bull economy is really a sugar rush made of frack gas and stock buybacks. In the meantime, the dark side of global consumer capitalism becomes more & more painfully evident in the form of desertification, ocean acidification/warming, climate change, and general ecological devastation.

This is all pretty discouraging to face as you go back to pointless drudgery in your horrible open office. Maybe I could have at least listed some of the compelling new tv shows or ranked good-looking celebrities or something?

Well don’t worry! I believe the situation could become much brighter than it presently seems. All is not yet completely lost. The 2020s do not necessarily need to be another lost decade like the teens. By adapting two sensible reforms, we can make the next decade actually good instead of good only for crooked billionaires and their mouthpieces.  But when I say two major reforms, I mean two MAJOR reforms which would change how power and resources are allocated at a society-wide scale. As an American, I am addressing the problems here in America, but I believe these concepts are broadly applicable to democratic societies. The year is already getting longer so I will state these big concepts bluntly and succinctly.

1)  Our broken political system needs to be fixed.  Right now partisan polarization is ripping the country apart.  Even broadly popular common-sense solutions are impossible to implement.  Stunningly, extremists on both sides of the aisle would rather deny the opposite party a victory than do what is best for everyone in the country.   The way to stop this polarization is through ranked-choice voting in state-wide elections and through independent election redistricting.  The current system helps extremists.  Ranked choice voting would make it much more difficult for fringe candidates to be elected.  Independent redistricting would mean that voters choose their political representatives rather than vice versa.  Since polarization would no longer be rewarded, political leaders could work together to gather some of the low-hanging fruit which has been left dangling by all of these sequesters, filibusters, pocket vetoes, hearings, and other scorched-earth political gambits.  Obviously we can’t just implement such a plan instantly (it would be stopped dead by political gridlock).  But if we started using ranked choice voting just for primaries and local elections it would help.  Soon we might start seeing politicians with plans and ideas from both the red and blue parties, instead of these despicable apparatchiks we now have.

2) Public investment needs to be poured into blue sky scientific research, applied research and development, education, and infrastructure.  In the market system, corporations will spend money on things which will make money for them in the immediate future.  Government and universities do the heavy lifting by conducting real research on real things.  The government makes the internet.  Private companies make Netflix.  Since corporate behemoths (ahem…monopolies) have an ever greater say in how money is spent, less money is being spent on science, education, and fundamental real physical systems (transportation, communication, sewage, water, and electric grids). R&D, education, and infrastructure are the seed corn of future prosperity.  Right now, corporations are eating that seed corn (in the form of Trump’s stupid tax cuts for the economy’s wealthiest players).  Right now, research scientists–the people whose ideas will keep you from dying horribly of a disease or keep the the future from becoming an unlivable hellscape–are being forced to grind their teeth as some character with an MBA from Sloan or Wharton explains that fundamental scientific research to understand the universe does not meet critical business metrics. I don’t mind busting the budget, but we should at least get something in return for the money.

Of course these two broad objectives things will be hard to accomplish, but I believe they are well within our collective grasp.  Best of all, as things begin to improve, virtuous feedback loops will unlock even further  progress.  2020 will be a hard year as we push against the corruption and failures of the past decade (or two)  but I believe that if we keep these two broad goals in mind, we can make the twenties a roaring success that everyone will talk about with pride and happiness… in a future world which still exists!


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




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



Ferrebeekeeper is baffled and alarmed by neutron stars (here is a post about them from back in the day).  A factoid from that post summarizes what makes these super-dense stellar remnants so disconcerting: a 1.27 square centimeter cube of neutron star material has approximately the same mass as all of Earth’s 7.7 billion human inhabitants (although the tiny cube of pure neutrons presumably lacks the same lively personality).  It is almost impossible to conceive of such a material…which is why we are reporting today’s space news! Astronomers at the Greenbank Radio telescope in West Virginia (pictured above) have discovered the largest known neutron star 4600 light years from Earth.  The star is known by the unlovely name J0740+6620 and it has 2.14 times the mass of the sun packed into a sphere with a diameter of 25 kilometers (to contextualize in instantly familiar terms, 25 km is the distance from Hell’s Kitchen to JFK airport).  This particular star is a rotating neutron star—a pulsar–which emits two radio beams from its poles as it rotates at hundreds of revolutions per second.  lies at the upper theoretical limit of how large a neutron star can be without collapsing into a black hole.


The star was discovered by luck as astronomers researched gravitational waves (which are vast invisible ripples in space time).  Because the neutron star has a white dwarf companion, astronomers were able to precisely calculate the star’s mass with some fancy math.   The mass of the white dwarf distorts spacetime around the neutron star to a degree which causes the pulsar’s radio beacons to be delayed by tenths of millionths of a second.  Astronomers measured these delays (the phenomenon is known as “Shapiro Delay”) and calculated the mass of the neutron star accordingly.


Saudi Arabia…the name is synonymous with corruption, sexism, waste, despotism, and vicious religious fundamentalism of the most cruel and benighted stamp.  Fifteen of the nineteen hijackers involved in the September 11th attacks were Saudi nationals. One could almost wonder why this kingdom is so closely allied with the United States of America.  Yet Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman does not just dream of the glories of the past, he dreams of future glories as well.  One way or another, humankind’s age of fossil fuels will soon come to a crashing end. When that happens, Prince Salman, wants his subjects to have something other than petrochemical riches to fall back on.  For all of the Crown Prince’s faults (cough, murdering and dismembering progressive dissidents), planning for the future is what a worthwhile leader should be doing, and I am impressed by the grandeur of this monarch’s plans.


Behold the City of Neom! A futuristic wonderland of architectural marvels, Neom will be designed based on a synthesis of ecological and technological design (rather in the mode of Singapore’s artificial supertrees). Staffed by incorruptible and tireless robot laborers and security forces, the city will be powered entirely with renewable energy.  The economy of the city will be based around research, technology, and creativity.  Neom will be under its own tax and labor laws and have an “autonomous judicial system” out from under the shadows of the current criminal justice system. Because the city will be constructed from scratch, there will be ample scope for visionary breakthroughs in transportation and infrastructure.  Some of the wilder ideas being bandied about include flying cars, cloud seeding, dinosaur robots and a giant artificial moon!


Neom lies at the confluence of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, and Israel.  The physical location is also between the golden desert and the rich coral reefs of the Red Sea.  It is also a meeting place of Asia and Africa.  The empty desert could indeed be a fitting place to construct a of towering dreams and miracles which would make Sinbad reel in astonishment…and yet…


…An especially cynical person, might suggest that Neom is a ludicrous confabulation dreamed up as cover for failed social policies, misallocated oil wealth, and a genocidal war of aggression in Yemen. Perhaps by carefully reading this post, you have intuited that I am dubious concerning the House of Saud–which supports the most reactionary and extremist Wahhabi clerics, who, in exchange, prop up this aging kleptocracy from their pulpits minbars.  Well I don’t love the ideals of Saudi Arabia insomuch as I understand them (although I have quite liked the individuals I have met from there), but I do like the concept of Neom.  Could it be built without relying on slave labor?  Could it be built at all?  The current financial plans involve a massive half-trillion dollar IPO of Saudi Aramco, and it seems unlikely that will happen soon based on the oil market (and the post-Kashoggi toxicity of the Saudi government to investors).

But true reform requires audacity and the ability to dream big.  Neom is a giant astonishing dream!  I would love to see it come to fruition (and pull Saudi Arabia out of its retrograde spiral). But that is going to require A LOT more than pipe dreams, stage lighting, and kleptocrats scratching each other’s fat backs.


Success will require international cooperation, actual social reform, and the ability to learn from failures and change course.  It will require learning, studying, and innovating far beyond what is happening anywhere right now (much less in a place seemingly designed to prevent any actual scientific or social progress).  Building Neom will require Saudi Arabia to rethink some of the foundational choices made at the time of independence from the Ottoman Empire…and it will also require the United States to rethink some of our bad habits vis-a-vis the kingdom (and to give up some of the snotty bigotry which is all too evident even among the most enlightened blog writers).  But these things are possible with bravery, near-infinite hard work, and unflinching self scrutiny. Call me, Salman, I will give you my true support.  Don’t expect me to meet you in Istanbul though.




The political crisis which has beset 21st century America generates such a breathtaking number of headlines that it is easy to become numb to the poor choices, the controversies, the hyperbolic invective…and just to the national news in general.   I have mostly chosen not to focus on the wretched litany of mistakes, missteps, idiocy, and criminal misbehavior coming out of the Trump Administration, but today I am making an exception since the program being attacked bears on larger affairs than those of our beleaguered nation.  The Political Crisis of the early 21st Century is one thing, but today’s news potentially affects the Holocene/Anthropocene Mass Extinction of Life on Earth.


The Endangered Species Act of 1973 was passed by bipartisan legislation and signed into law by Richard Nixon. It is the key U.S. law for protecting wildlife. The law can certainly not be repealed in the paralyzed super-partisan Washington of today, but the Trump administration is choosing to enforce the law in new ways which undermine the purpose of the Act.  Specifically there are two proposed changes:

The first is that agencies enforcing the ESA are given latitude to ignore projected future changes.  The exact verbiage is “The Services will describe the foreseeable future on a case-by-case basis.”  This means that regulators are free to ignore the outcomes of their decisions provided those outcomes are not immediate.  If actions taken now will disrupt or ruin a habitat within a few years, well, that’s no longer the purview of the Act.  Talk to the relevant agency once the bad thing has happened, not before!

The second (and more disturbing) change is an omission.  Decisions about how to protect species were previously based solely on scientific consensus  “without reference to possible economic or other impacts of such determination.”  That phrase has now been removed from the guidelines.  We will see what this means in the real world.  To me it certainly seems like if the choice comes down to protecting the habitat of an endangered frog or protecting the profits of a dirtbag real estate developer, unknown apparatchiks are free to chose the latter for unknown reasons.


Coming Soon to your favorite ecosystem! Financing available!

Experts suspect that these changes are giveaways to real estate concerns and to mining & fossil fuel extraction industries.  It isn’t hard to see why they think that!  It is worth noting though that the Endangered Species Act is extremely popular and effective.  To quote an article on Vox

The act is generally uncontroversial among the public: About 83 percent of Americans (including a large majority of conservatives) support it, according to an Ohio State University poll. And it works: According to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the act has prevented the “extinction of 99 percent of the species it protects.”

So call/write to your elected officials and raise a ruckus!  There is a lot going on right now, but any politician who isn’t completely owned by Exxon is likely to at least think about messing up legislation with an 83 percent approval rating.  Is the world going to lament the absence of some hideous prefab condos in the exurbs or are we going to miss the beautiful animals and plants that support the web of life which humankind is part of?





Did you read the thought-provoking opinion piece by evolutionary anthropologist, Dorsa Amir, in the Washington Post?  You should read the whole thing and see what you think!  Clickbait title aside, it presents a powerful premise, even if the writer does not quite follow through on her conclusions.  In case you don’t feel like reading it (or if the WaPo paywall is knocking you around), here is a crude summary:  one of the unique features of human culture is children’s culture which, across time, and throughout all different nations, has provided a sort of society-within-a-society where playing at being adult teaches the critical aspects of social interaction and creative problem solving to the next generation.  By pushing children immediately into the great adult hierarchical game of constant adversarial competition (by means of overscheduling, too much busywork/schoolwork, constant supervision, curtailing free play, and so forth and so on) contemporary society is denying children a chance to get good at the truly important things: curiosity, creativity, and interpersonal relationships.


As ever, I find humans less different from other animals than the anthropocentric author seems to be willing to recognize (has she never watched kittens play…to say nothing of juvenile spider monkeys or baby elephants?), but let us leave that aside and address to her social thesis. I am not sure that 21st century adults’ overprotective urges to give their kids any advantage in our workaholic, winner-take-all culture is the real problem.  I think the workaholic, winner-take-all society itself is the problem.  It is not that kids play too little in our over-teched world.  It is that adults play too little. Plus we do it wrong.

Let me explain with an anecdote before expanding my critique. I have some friends who are super-successful Park Slope parents.  They are raising their children with every advantage (and every overscheduled, over-tutored, overworked, over-fretted-upon stereotype of Amir’s piece).  The children however, are not mindless little perfectionist zombies.  They are brilliant wonderful kids. My buddy heard his 5-year-old daughter talking with great animation to someone behind closed-doors, and, upon bursting in, he discovered she had snatched a tablet and launched an internet chat show of her own.  “These kids are already broadcasting!” he told me with a confounded look.

Just as the Thule kids of Amir’s essay built miniature hunter-gatherer storehouses, the Park Slope children were assembling miniature media empires.  The ancient analogous relationship was still perfectly intact.  It’s just that the adults are no longer stalking javelinas or building granaries, we are staring at damned screens (argh, I am doing it right now, after doing it all day at work! So are you!) [as an aside, I was shocked to find “Thule” showing up again in an essay about hunter-gatherer childhood culture…what is up with that confounding name?]


American society features a well-known need to be continuously productive (this is the famous “Protestant-work-ethic”…though New York has taught me that our newest citizens from West Africa or East Asia have a very homologous sort of code).  Technology and the shifting nature of work have somehow brought that tendency even further into our lives.  When my mother was baking a pie or feeding the geese, I could grasp those activities and join her or make my own games about animal husbandry or baking mastery.  Yet when modern parents are on their smartphones responding to late night emails from the boss about PR or legal questions, the script is harder to follow for children.  The kids do get onto the devices and there are plenty of games and social and other diversions to be had there.  I am no technophobe: I think the next generation’s technological savvy will serve us well, yet things online are crafted like fishing lines or beartraps to capture our attention for the purposes of others.  Free unstructured play in the real world transcends such things. To see people engaged together in such play is to see their faces alive with thought and delight.


When I ran a toy company, my business partner and I did not know very many children.  In order to test our creative animal-themed toys out, we showed them to adults.  The poor people looked deeply flustered at being asked to “play” again and they stared at the toys like dogs who had been whipped.  Only gradually would they pick up the colorful pieces and try to recapture the magic of childhood.  However, then a lovely thing would happen.  They would be captivated by the delight of making things for the sheer joy of it. They would get all wound up in toys and in explaining their creations. Unexpected people came up with all sorts of great ideas. Children know that play is the magic elixir for bonding and brainstorming. Adults have forgotten this or only rediscover it in attenuated form with team-building exercises or obsessive-compulsive video games.

Watching people go bowling or play with Legos or play with children makes you immediately recognize that watching Netflix or “liking” things on social media is not playing.


How do we create a world of meaningful creative play for adults?  That sounds like a crazy/frivolous question compared to queries such as how we confront 21st century business monopolies or solve political paralysis or make people interested in the beautiful yet complicated inquiries of science.  But I feel like the answers might actually be related.

We modern adults need to work harder at playing.  Only then will we capture the true benefits of all of our frenetic toil.  Let’s learn from the kids instead of breaking their spirits early on with too much of our gray work world.

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