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Right now the western democracies generally–and America, specifically–are caught in an agonizing cultural tar pit where we seem unable to reform or renew ourselves. The fundamental root of this problem is socioeconomic: business monopolies and corporate cartels are gobbling up more and more of society’s resources and using those resources to prevent true competition from emerging. The vast corporate cartels also use their resources to subaltern politics and prevent government from properly regulating and rectifying this unfair market dominance. As Republicans (or nationalists, or Tories, or fascists, or whatever they are called) sabotage and discredit the government at the behest of their corporate masters, the nation becomes afflicted by stalemate and gridlock. The more the pro-monopolist politicians can make things worse, the more they can claim “government is broken.” Then these corrupted politicians privatize services we all need (and destroy research and development, which are, after all, dangerous to the great monopolies). The corporate cartels become yet more powerful. The government grows more feeble. Voters grow more disillusioned and alienated. Society begins to falter and fail.

On the side of the world, our national adversaries have none of this to worry about. In Russia and China, the monopolies have won completely. This confuses many people since it happened the opposite way over there. Instead of business cartels installing a corrupt single party to cement their social control, a corrupt single party has installed business cartels. However, the net result is the same: a single cabal of autocrats makes all of the rules and controls all of the resources.

This perspicacious article from Matthew Rozsa makes this same case (albeit in a somewhat different way). The writer asks that a political and cultural coalition of Generation X, Millenials, and Zoomers rise to the political challenge of our times in the same way that the Lost Generation, the greatest Generation, and the Silent Generation managed the epic crises of the mid-twentieth century [by the way, here is a link to some long ago posts about these demographic cohorts].

I think this is a great idea…but it is going to call for more ideas. Imagination is allowed on the internet…but not anywhere else in our world! In order to out-compete the huge anti-competitive cartels we are going to need lots and lots of ideas. We will need not just new ways of doing things but new reasons for doing things. When I was younger I used to hear “Oh these ideas are great, but how will they make money” Well what is money doing for us? It is only a placeholding symbol for status and resources–like the score on a videogame, or the gilt crown on a tinpot king. It is not actually an end in and of itself. The fact that so many people think otherwise is part of the problem. The MBA-ification of our civilization has stolen our best minds and created this monopoly problem to begin with! Let’s brainstorm new solutions!

All of which is to say, Ferrebeekeeper is going to start a new series of posts about how society can better focus humankind’s dangerous primate drives and tendency towards certain terrible fallacies into more productive directions. Many of the most compelling new ideas for doing things are being suppressed–because people are afraid to even examine them or argue about them. I have no illusions that we will find the next economic paradigm to replace capitalism (like it replaced mercantilism or mercantilism replaced feudalism) but I do believe that by brainstorming, fantasizing, and looking more deeply at past societies and the world of nature we can do away with some of the reactionary thinking, corruption, and parochial obscurantism which are trapping us all in a system which is killing not just us but the whole world of life.

Congratulations are due to NASA today. Yesterday at 3:55 p.m. ET the Perseverance rover (with the Ingenuity flying probe aboard) touched down in good order on the surface of Mars after a 470.7 million kilometer (292.5 million mile) journey. The spacecraft lifted off back last July and my somewhat wistful post about the launch from back then is a reminder of the trying nature of summer 2020 (but also serves as a useful overview of the larger Perseverance mission). Right now, in the aftermath of the bravura landing on an alluvial fan delta within the Jezero Crater, Perseverance and NASA are running diagnostics and preparing to explore the 49 km (30 miles) diameter crater. Ingenuity has not launched yet (although I am super excited to see what a 49 km (30 miles) crater on Mars looks like from the air). We do have one picture from the mission already (top), and although the low res view is partially obscured by a dust cover, it already hints at great things in the future (while also somehow reminding me of terrestrial nuggets of ice on my walks to the subway this week). We will keep you apprized from Mars as we learn more (and Ferrebeekeeper also extends its best wishes to the Chinese space agency whose own rover is scheduled to reach the red planet in May).

Ferrebeekeeper has presented catfish which live beneath the water table, chickens which look like they have no head, 600 pound turtles, clams which have been alive since the 17th century, and turkeys which give virgin birth…not to mention the “King of Herring” the world’s longest bony fish. We are no strangers to strange creatures! But today we come face to face (?) with what might be the strangest creature of them all! Steel yourselves for a creature which is literally made of metal! [crazy metal guitar solo]

And here it is! Behold the scaly foot gastopod (Chrysomallon squamiferum) a tiny snail [5 cm] which lives in the Indian Ocean!

Um, maybe I need to add some context to help explain why this small drab mollusk is so exceedingly strange. First of all, the scaly foot snail is a creature of the deeps: the snails live on (in? around?) deep sea ocean vents which are at least 2,400 meters beneath the ocean surface. Specimens have been discovered as deep as 2,900 meters below sea level. In British Imperial measurement that is 1.5 to 2 miles underwater! And these snails live on/in/around hydrothermal vents where water temperature can reach 400° Celsius (about 750° Fahrenheit) and where oxygen is scarce and yet hydrogen sulfide is abundant. In case all of this was not unusual enough for you, the snails are all simultaneous hermaphrodites (meaning they have complete functioning sets of reproductive organs of both genders and frequently self-fertilize).

Yet the strangest thing about the scaly foot snail is what it eats: nothing! Or to be more specific the adult creatures are obligate symbiotrophs–the snails live on the secretions of gammaproteobacteria which live within their oesophageal glands. The bacteria are extremophiles which metabolize the chemical rich waters of the vents. These snails do not live directly or indirectly from photosynthesis!

The snail’s signature feature may be its armor. The shell is a three level composite of iron sulfide on the outside, protein in the middle, and calcium carbonate on the inside. Like wise the snails’ sensitive feet are covered in composite nodules of iron sulfide and protein. All of this armor keeps the little snails safe from the predators of the vent ecosystem–strange crustaceans which look like furry white lobsters and larger predatory snails. I wrote briefly about this snail about a decade ago, when I concentrated more on the uniqueness of its armor. Back in those days we thought that nothing could possibly harm the scaly-foot snail, a creature which I imagined to be perfectly safe in its own little alien world at the bottom of the ocean (except for occasional predation by those larger snail, of course). But Earth’s greediest animal has a habit of getting everywhere and lately the scaly foot snail has been endangered by deep sea mining operations which aim to harvest the rare and valuable minerals around deep sea vents. It is hard to believe that our arms have grown long enough to harass these poor little weirdos in their little suits of armor a mile and a half beneath the waves, but, frankly I may have misspoke about which animal is really the weirdest

An artist’s conception Jurassic ammonites

I have always been fascinated by cephalopods. One of my favorite parts of natural history museums is seeing the reconstructions of ancient oceans where the big gray spirals are re-imagined with the colors and textures (and tentacles) of real life. Those stunning reconstructions and thrilling artworks are based on the appearance and anatomy of modern cephalopods…and pretty much nothing else. The soft tissue of orthocones, ammonites, and belemnites is not preserved in the fossil record. Invertebrate paleontologists (and artists) have been forced to flesh in those fabulous shells with information gleaned from octopuses squids, and nautiluses.

Until now! Scientists looking at limestone “pages” from the the extraordinary Solnhofen-Eichstätt deposits southern Germany were perplexed by a weird ancient blob (above). I hope you will take a moment to look at these seemingly meaningless pink and yellow smudges and smears. Such an examination provides testament to the gifts of paleontologist Christian Klug of the University of Zurich who was able to decipher what this truly is: the body of a 150 million year old ammonite somehow removed from its shell and preserved in an anoxic lagoon.

Through Klug’s reconstructive prowess we are able to gift the anatomy of this ancient creature. Ammonoids were common in Earth’s oceans from the Ordovician until the end of the Cretaceous (a 400 million year run) and they are invaluable to geologists as index fossils, but, in some ways we don’t know much about them. Although this fossil helps us to understand their anatomy, it also engenders new questions. For example, how did this particular mollusk die? It is possible it was ripped from its shell by some Jurassic monster which then lost hold of the morsel. After watching the decaying creatures drifting in the tides of the Chesapeake, however, I am more inclined to think that the interstitial tissues which held the ammonite in its shell decayed and the dead animal slid out. This hypothesis is somewhat supported by what is still missing from this extraordinary find: the arms! Ammonite scientists would dearly love to know about the arms of these creatures. Were they numerous and weak like the arms of nautiluses? Were they long and strong like the grabbing arms of cuttlefish? Did ammonites have different sorts of arms for different purposes? (based on modern cephalopods, this would be my guess). We still don’t know, but the very existence of this fossil shows that with luck, infinite patience, and Professor Klug’s sharp eyes, it is possible to discover things lost for hundreds of millions of years. Maybe there are other finds waiting out there in the ancient rock!

In this glorious new era of planet hunting, astronomers have been discovering all sorts of freakish & unexpected worlds. To date scientists have confirmed over 4300 exoplanets (and they have partial data or leads on thousands of others). Among the 4300 known planets there are some true odd balls–a carbon planet nine times the size of Earth made of diamond, a super ghost planet twice the volume of Jupiter with half the mass, “hot Jupiter” worlds which are bigger than Jupiter but closer to their suns than Mercury. Today scientists have announced a whole new superlative: they discovered the oldest known planet, a world which dates back to the roaring infancy of the galaxy. This world goes by the name TOI-561b and, before our sun spun into existence, it was already older than the sun is now.

To put this in proper context, we need some astronomical ages (which are highly revealing in their own right). Here is a useful table of the known ages of various galaxies, stars, and, uh, everything. These dates are in Earth years (in case you are reading this elsewhere, I guess) as of AD 2021. The dates may be subject to some revision, although we keep zeroing in with greater and greater precision so I do not anticipate any large shifts:

Age of Universe13.77 Billion Years
Age of Milky Way Galaxy13.4 Billion Years
Age of TOI-561b10 Billion Years
Age of Sun4.6 Billion Years
Age of Planet Earth4.543 billion years
Age of Cher74 Years

The exoplanet TOI-561b is located in the thick disk of the Milky Way. The planet is close to its home star which it orbits twice an Earth Day (ergo, a TOI-561b year lasts about twelve hours). Because TOI-561b is so close to its star, it is hot, the surface temperature is reckoned to be about 2,000 Kelvin (3,140 degrees Fahrenheit). The rocky world has a volume 50 percent larger than Earth and a mass three times as great. The density of TOI-561b, however, is much less than that of Earth and this is because the planet is largely lacking in metals. The reason for this absence is disconcerting: TOI-561b formed before many stars had exploded, back in a time when metal was rare in the universe. There may not be many planets older than TOI-561b anywhere because there was nothing to make planets out of in the time before it formed. A generation or two of stars needed to live and die before such elements existed!

Thinking of how different things were when Cher was young is hard for me! (I like Cher and I put her up there because she is still a dynamic star). Thinking of what things were like when TOI-561b formed out of the first matter more complex than hydrogen and lithium and whatnot is practically inconceivable! It must have been quite a view though: hovering above a glowing brand-new galaxy sparkling with supernovae. I wonder if there was ever any sort of (non metallic) life there before its star became old and giant and hot.

I am sorry the new posts have been a bit exiguous here during holiday time. For some reason, I have felt a bit worn out at the end of this painful and distressing year and I was hoping to recharge a bit. This is also why today does not feature a real post about pangolins, spacefaring, or fashionable baroque colors, but is instead a short look back at 2020 (goodness help us) and a look forwards at some of the things that are next for Ferrebeekeeper and my allied creative projects in the new year.

Speaking of creativity, when I am working on big projects, I like to sometimes take breaks and work on other things for a little while. This is obviously NOT the way the great obsessive-compulsive masters of world capitalism do things (they prefer to burn people out by doing things as quickly and cheaply as possible without any breaks), and it is true that stopping work on a particular painting to work on some other drawing makes the painting take longer overall. Yet sometimes a hiatus allows the artist to return to the project with that most valuable of creative tools…a fresh eye. After a break, one can (sometimes) escape the mistakes and feedback loops that were ruining a cherished piece.

I mention all of this not just to hype my own creative projects (and explain why they are taking longer than I wanted), but also to mention that this pandemic year of fallow projects has a silver lining of sorts. As when the master comes back to a half finished allegory after a sojourn in Italy, we can now clearly see all of the flaws and virtues of the great unfinished work.

And looking at our society (after a year of not using it or working on it) obvious flaws of every sort pop out! For example, we learned that we are not ready for a pandemic! If this had been a virulently deadly contagion (or heaven help us, a disease which was hardest on children) we would be well and truly screwed. Our national healthcare system, once the paragon of effective medical research and care, currently resembles a grotesque, bloated leech! And attempts to remedy that problem (or anything else) are stymied by political paralysis. Partially because of demographic change and partly due to sabotage from one of the two parties (and from deep-pocketed special interest groups), our political machinery has stopped working properly. And speaking of giant machines which do not work right, globalized “just-in-time” supply chains do indeed allow for a paradise of cheap products, but the model is brittle and fragile. Everyone with an MBA is taught to see the world through exactly the same metrics. Those metrics do not reward creativity, elasticity, or sustainability. Our short-term business models are poisonous for our long-term goals.

But good things about this giant picture have also become evident. For one thing, the laser-fast targeted vaccines suggest that the long delayed biotech revolution we were promised in the ’80s and ’90s might finally be right around the corner. Breakthroughs in nanotechnology, AI, and materials science (and in cellular biology) mean that vast bio-medical breakthroughs are possible (if we could just evict the parasitic MBA types from making the top-decisions about what to pursue). Likewise the flaws of Reaganomics and Grover Norquist type thinking have suddenly become painfully obvious to everyone with any sort of brain or shred of honesty/decency. Political reform is very possible now too, but the whole electorate must work together to stop the Mitch McConnell (and allied corporate villains) from paralyzing and destroying our society.

Actually with a few political and economic reforms (and with a lot of ecological consciousness as well) society could be at the cusp of an all-time great decade! However we must work together to stop parasitic oligarchs, demagogues, and monopolists from leading us to more disastrous floundering of the sort which has been universally in evidence this year.

Not me though! I have plenty more floundering planned for 2021 (the good, creative sort). I will tell you about it tomorrow (since I went long complaining about MBAs and cartels). Suffice it to say, this will be a long winter at the drawing board for all of us… But we can make it work and fix everything and make all of our dreams come true. It’s just going to take [checks notes]…a lot of hard work, dedication, and organization? Argh! Maybe the outcome of the twenties is still up in the air. We’ll talk more about it tomorrow…

Back in the day, my grandfather was in Vietnam.. Although he lived in Saigon, he worked closely with the Hmong, the people of the forested mountains which run up the country like a green spine. Sometimes he would rhapsodize about the otherworldly beauty of these tropical cloud forests where he saw sights that seemed to come from times long gone. Beyond the bronze age settlements and floating villages of the Hmong Grandpa said he saw jewel-like orchids and mysterious plants there which were wholly unknown. He also said he witnessed amazing birds, insects, and reptiles and heard rumors of strange animals that seemed to belong in myths (maybe like the saola, which is real (barely)…or maybe like the baku, which is not).

All of which brings us to contemporary news! Back in 2019, a group of American and Vietnamese biologists were studying Vietnam’s northern Ha Giang province (which borders south China) when they found a bizarre snake. The snake did not have bright-light photoreceptors in its eyes and it had strange scales like smooth river pebbles arranged in odd patterns The snake was fossorial–a burrower like the amphibian caecilians. Most strangely of all it had iridescent scales but the colorful opal iridescence was atop dark scales of indigo, lavender, brown, and gray. The snake was unknown to science and it has just been announced as an entirely new species–Achalinus zugorum. It is a member of the genus of snakes called Achalinus, the odd scaled snakes, a poorly understood genus which previously only had 13 known species.

Snakes of the Achalinus genus do not have overlapping scales, instead their scales spread out (perhaps to facilitate a life spent hunting beneath the leaf litter and the forest duff). They seem to be a basal lineage which branched from the evolutionary tree of snakes before the ancestors of other snakes did. Not only their appearance. but also their behavior is very different from that of other snakes. Unfortunately, because of their burrowing lifestyle, the odd-scaled snakes hold tight to their mysteries. A Vietnamese herpetologist who was describing the new species said that during decades of collecting snakes in Vietnam’s snake-filled jungles he has only captured half a dozen Achalinus snakes.

The discovery highlights how much we do not know about creatures and ecosystems which are disappearing quickly. Fortunately, researchers at the Smithsonian sequenced the DNA for Achalinus zugorum before returning the single specimen to Vietnam. We may know nothing about this carnival glass serpent from the underworld, but we also know everything about it (if we ever learn to truly read what we have written down). It excites me to imagine these snakes and other unknown species pursuing their secret and unintelligible lives among the orchid roots, and myceli of unknown fungi in these forests. It makes me anxious though, too. How long will this cryptic & beautiful hidden world even exist before it is all swept away?

Wallace’s giant bee (Megachile pluto) with a normal honeybee for scale

After all of the hullabaloo this year, you could be forgiven for thinking that the largest hymenopteran is the Asian giant hornet (Vespa mandarinia aka “murder hornet”), a formidable insect which can measure up to 40 mm (1.6 inches) long with a 60 mm (2.5 inches) wingspan. But the murder hornet might be outweighed by a behemoth bug from the Moluccas…assuming it still exists.

Way back in 1858, the renowned British naturalist, Alfred Russel Wallace (who was working on the theory of evolution on the opposite side of the world from Darwin, without either man knowing it) was cataloguing the wildlife of the Moluccas when he found a colossal black resin bee. Resin bees are pretty interesting (they are also known as mason bees) since they carefully cut up pieces of leaves and then glue them together into little houses. We probably need to talk more about them at some point. But what was remarkable about the bee Wallace found was not that it was gluing together tiny houses, but rather that it was an enormous insect, a veritable flying bulldog. Wallace’s giant bee was given the cool scientific name Megachile pluto (although the Indonesian name rotu ofu, “queen of bees” might be even cooler). Female bees measure in at a length of 38 mm (1.5 in), with a wingspan of 63.5 mm (2.5 in), however, with their huge mandibles and heavy tanklike bodies they look heavier than the Asian giant hornets [eds note: sadly we do not have the mass for either insect and, although we here at the Ferrebeekeeper division of weights and measurements tried to coax them up onto the bathroom scale for a weigh in, we were quickly dissuaded by…ummm…the modesty of these colossal stinging creatures).

Wallace’s giant bee disappeared from the public eye and was thought to be extinct until it was rediscovered in 1981, but the bees again vanished. Once again they were believed to be gone from the world until last year (2019) when they were re-rediscovered on the internet! Somebody even filmed a live one! (ed’s note: please don’t harass Wallace’s giant bee or try to buy specimens online)

You are probably wondering where these bees were for all of those long years of presumed extinction. Well it turns out that they do indeed build little houses just like other resin bees, however they build them inside living colonies of tree-dwelling termites! This is why they are so robust and have such terrifying mandibles–for bulldozing into termite mounds and doing as they wish! Wallace’s giant bees are hopefully doing just fine snug in their little homes, built safely inside a writhing river of biting termites inside rotting trees within the remote rainforests of quasi- inaccessible Indonesian islands. We could all learn from their fine example of staying home. Let’s not molest them so that they are a pleasant surprise when they are re-re-rediscovered in 2107 (assuming any of us self-destructive are around to be cataloging tropical bugs then).

Paleontologists argue about which living organisms were first. In exchange, we living organisms get to argue about who was the the first paleontologist. There are many potential answers: the Greek philosophers/natural scientists Xenophanes, Herodotus, & Eratosthenes all wrote about fossils and recognized that parts of the land were once under water. Likewise the Roman geographer Strabo theorized about volcanism, subduction, and, most importantly, deposition. Pliny labored to apprehend the relationships between living creatures (and how they related to vanished or mythological beasts). A Medieval Perisan Ibn Sina (known as Avicenna in Europe) came up with a theory concerning the petrification of living things while the Chinese naturalist Shen Kuo recognized that climate and ecology changed over time (based on his studies of petrified bamboo).

However, to my eyes, the first paleontologist was an altogether more peculiar figure–a Baroque Danish polymath named Nicolas Steno who lived from 1638 to 1686. The son of a goldsmith, Steno moved through the scintillant aristocratic courts of Northern Europe in his era and thus knew Spinoza, de Graaf Ruysch, Lister, and Bourdelot (along with lots of aristocrats and churchmen who were probably all-important for securing patronage back then but about whom we are no longer obliged to care). As you can probably tell from the list of names I have given, Steno was dirst an anatomist, and it is through a strange quirk of dissection that he made a name for himself as a geology/paleontology pioneer.

In 1666 two Ligurian fishermen caught a colossal shark which they presented to the Grand Duke of Tuscany, Ferdinando II de’ Medici, who had the presence of mind to order it sent to Steno for dissection. Steno dissected the shark’s head and discovered that its teeth were extremely similar to stony objects discovered within the earth (then known as “tongue stones” but now called “fossilized shark teeth”). These mysterious triangles were once thought to have been hidden by imps or to have fallen from the moon. Steno recognized they came from sharks (perhaps giant sharks killed by the Biblical flood ?) and he devised a hypothesis for how they further came to be inside of rocks. Steno devised a theory of stratigraphy (a discipline of which he is arguably the founder). His four principles of stratigraphy laid the bedrock (heh heh heh) for Lyell, Hutton, and Darwin to piece together an accurate record of events on Earth. These four principles are:

  1. the law of superposition (older layers lie beneath more recent layers…just like upon a cluttered desk)
  2. the principle of original horizontality: (thanks to gravity, layers are horizontal when deposited)
  3. the principle of lateral continuity: (layers within a basin extend in all directions according to the manner and order of their deposition and are contiguous)
  4. the principle of cross-cutting relationships: if a disconuity cuts through a layer, it must be more recent than the strata

These principles seem childishly obvious to anyone who has ever made a sand sculpture–and they are in fact beautifully brilliantly obvious. Yet nobody had stated them together in the context of natural history or applied them properly to the stones beneath us. Indeed it would take another hundred years for scientific consensus to grasp their astonishing power and scope.

Sadly, Steno became interested in theological conundrums (and in the worldly power of the church). He converted to Catholicism and was ordained a priest. Soon he became involved in the counter reformation (where he found a new role arguing with Leibniz and censoring Spinoza). Thanks to his self-abnegating piety and devotion he was even raised to the rank of auxiliary bishop. His story becomes filled with weird hagiographic details like how he sold the bishop’s ring and cross to help the poor and how he ate so little that he, um died.

Steno was not unique among geology pioneers in being a churchman. However he is unique in that he has been beatified (Pope John Paul beatified him in 1988). According to the tenants of Catholicism, if you pray to Nicolas Steno he can intercede upon your behalf in heaven! However I recommend that you do not pay attention to such holy claptrap, but instead keep looking at interesting rocks and cool fish. That is where the real beatification occurs.

Worldwide there are about 17,000 species of bees…and most of them seem to be is some sort of trouble. However it is not easy to keep track of 17,000 anythings…much less 17,000 species of small flying insects. So the plight of all bees is not clearly understood (even if we have shocking anecdotes of how poorly some individual bee species are doing). To remedy our ignorance of the bigger picture, a group of apiculturists, hymenopterists, ecologists, data scientists, and biology-minded cartologists collaborated to create a worldwide bee map.

Assembled from piecing together millions of individual data points, The bee map is a god’s eye overview of how bees are doing across the entire planet. Just glancing at it reveals some strange patterns about our little flying friends. Unlike most animals, bees are more numerous and various in temperate and arid habitats than in tropical forests. I wonder if this is because tropical forests do not offer the sheer acreage of uncontested flowers that prairies, croplands, & blooming scrublands do, or if it because nobody is marking down data points about tiny flying (and stinging) insects in the middle of the trackless Amazon. Perhaps as the bee map evolves into greater complexity and thoroughness we will have a definitive answer to that question.

The bee map should also help us to track the results of habitat loss and climate change on bee populations (and distinguish the impact of such vectors from natural bee predilections/behaviors). Dr John Ascher of the National University of Singapore expresses this point with greater clarity: “By establishing a more reliable baseline we can more precisely characterize bee declines and better distinguish areas less suitable for bees from areas where bees should thrive but have been reduced by threats such as pesticides, loss of natural habitat, and overgrazing.”

I hope the bee map fulfills its purpose and helps nature’s hard-working pollinators and flying fieldhands to worldwide recovery. But beyond that wish, I am excited to see more visual representations of vast ecological datasets. Big data had such promise…but so far it seemingly has mostly been used for targeted marketing, tearing apart democracy, and crafting esoteric financial schemes. Sigh… Let’s have more thoughtful use of the tools that technology gives us to solve actual important problems.

Ye Olde Ferrebeekeeper Archives

February 2021