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Here at Ferrebeekeeper we pay far too little attention to cartilaginous fish such as sharks, rays, skates, sawfish, and chimaeras. This is partly because I know and love bony fish better (that is a weird sentence to fling out to the world), but, to a larger degree it is because sharks already have people–there are whole networks, hit movies, and even weeks dedicated to them (in fact, my friend’s first book was about a “Shark Detective“). So when longtime reader, K Hindall asked about my favorite angelshark, I was tempted to respond only in the comments and get back to bloviating about pufferfish. But how could I respond to such a clever and thought-provoking question in a short blurb. Clearly a full post is required, even if I have to pull myself away from blogging about the Olympics.

For symbolic (and complex personal) reasons I have been making artworks about flatfish–a taxonomical order which is vastly larger, more diverse, and more widespread than say the familiar order of Primates (particularly when you remove one particular over-represented species of hominid from the mix). Boy you would never know it from artworld pushback I receive about why I concentrate my art on “a single obscure sort of fish”. Sigh…Anyway, K Himdall correctly notes that angelsharks are not flatfish…but are very much flat fish. She then asks what my favorite angelshark is.

There is probably a bearded wobbegong shark in there somewhere, assuming I didn’t mislabel the picture file

She knows me too well! But my my favorite sort of flat sharks are carpet sharks of the family Orectolobidae–which is to say wobbegong sharks! Not only are these are the most beautiful sharks (assuming you can see them at all), they also have the best name of any shark…or pretty much any other creature* They are also flat as pancakes (i.e. not perfectly flat but pretty flat) and exquisitely ornamented with chaotic ocean camouflage and sharkskin gillysuits which help them blend into their habitat.

Angelsharks are similar flattened lurking benthic predators, but they live on open sea floors as well as among rocks and reefs. In our world of habitat loss and rampant overfishing, angelsharks are not doing as well as carpetsharks, because fisheries have been overharvesting the former and selling them as “monkfish”. The angelsharks family Squatinidae has two dozen known species, most of which are endangered or threatened. During the day they bury themselves in the sand and wait for prey and predators both to unknowingly pass over them (although at night they swim about hunting for crustaceans, fish, and mollusks.

It is hard to chose a favorite angelshark because they have amazing names like “sand devil” and “ornate angelshark”. The easy choice for artists Squantinidae gugenheim is, ironically, too cubist for my aesthetic taste. Thus, my favorite angelshark is Squatina nebulosa, “the clouded angelshark”. Not only does its pattern of spots and stipples remind me of wobbegong sharks, but the clouded angelshark lives in the waters around Japan and Taiwan (so maybe I can claim this as an Olympics post after all). I also like how the large “eyespots” of the clouded angelshark make it look like it has a whole bunch of big milky eyes.

Hopefully this answers the question of my favorite angelsharks while also popularizing the noble squantinidae and their ilk. At very least, this first shark post reminds me that I am going to have to write a post about wobbegong sharks at some point…

Do I even have any wobbegong pictures at all, or is this all just gunk sitting on the ocean floor?

*although they might have some competition from nightjars, numbats, quokkas, woolly mammoths, and the humahumanukanukaapuaa (which also needs its own post)

Since I was a child, I have loved the Olympics, but a lot has changed in the world since the black-and-white moral conflict of the cold war (and a lot has changed for me since I was a child living in blood-red rural America). As one of the few venues where the nations of the Earth convene, the Olympics gives us a god’s eye view of the international order (albeit through the darkened lens of corporate sponsorship and whatever NBC thinks will appeal to the most American viewers). As the games proceed we can talk about some of what we are viewing. For example, I think the Tokyo Olympics will illustrate how America’s ongoing political crisis is leading to precipitous national decline even more starkly than say the manifold failures of our navy or the savage buffoonery of our national legislature. But we will see! The games have yet to be played and there are always surprises. First let’s talk about the opening ceremony.

One of the ways the Olympics outshine quotidian sports contests is by throwing little tidbits to other disciplines like fashion, music, technology, art, and dance. The original Olympics had medals for music, literature, and the arts, and, although such cultural contests have been subsumed by the dictates of modern broadcasting, elements remain within the pageantry and protocol of the games. Nowhere is this more evident than in the opening ceremony–which certainly showcased Japan’s continuing expertise at robotics (and also featured some delightfully preposterous dance routines). However the real spectacle worth watching is the parade of nations! We get to see almost all of the other nations of Earth and a sample of how they dress for fancy occasions, not to mention a prime lineup of extremely fit human beings of all shapes and varieties.

Ghana’s flag bearer, Nadia Eke

It was wonderful, like it always is. Also, after a year or more of watching anxious and sick people on TV, the athletes looked particularly happy and healthy. I don’t know about you, but my heart soared with delight seeing that flag holder from Ghana dance into the stadium with such graceful & proud bearing.

And there was so much more! There were Bermudans in Bermuda shorts! There were magnificent gleaming Hercules chests (these days, Tonga is not the only nation headlined by a magnificent oiled muscleman!)

Who wore it butter?

There were jewels and gold from the Persian Gulf.

I really liked the style of the bejeweled Bahraini athletes!
The Hungarians themselves look great, though

Of course there were also fashion choices which failed to “stick the landing” too. Hungary is an amazing country but their outfits made them look like the title sequence of the gory film I watched in driver’s ed! Maybe let’s try to avoid red spatters in future costumes.

Sartorial magnificence of every flavor was on display. However to my eyes, the most beautiful costumes belonged to the athletes from…Benin? Their regal embroidered tunics and dresses of royal blue featured fluorescent pink and aqua floral icons. These matched their magnificent satin hats (of name unknown to me). I wasn’t expecting the word’s 163rd wealthiest nation to win the international fashion contest (in fact half of my favorite things from my notes are from nations on the Gulf of Guinea!), but like I said, half of the delight of the Olympics comes from joyful surprises.

America’s outfits were fine, I suppose, but the dark navy blue on top of dark denim read as almost black. Also, I always worry that our nation mistakes casual comfort for elegance, which is to say I thought we maybe looked a bit like lazy villains (which suits the past four years, I guess).

Anyway, the opening parade is over and we can get back showing off in venue which primatologists (or bio-scientists of any stripe) will instantly recognize: physical competition. But before we get too competitive I hope we hold onto a bit of the international amity and open delight in the appearance and actions of foreigners which characterized the opening ceremony. Something tells me we are going to need to love each other a lot more if we are going to survive what is coming (much less make it through to a glowing future of thriving forests, healthy oceans, joyful children, and giant space arks). But somewhere in that Olympics parade there are always things that make me think that such a world is at least possible.

Hubble space telescope.

Happy news to follow up on our somewhat glum Fourth of July post! The Hubble space telescope (which went offline on June 13th, 2021 due to a failure in the main computer) has fully rebooted and is once more humankind’s eye in the sky for observing the greater universe.

The telescope, which has been orbiting Earth for 30 years, can no longer be serviced by space shuttle crews and must now be fixed remotely by command staff at Godard Space Center in Maryland. Since the Hubble scope was was built in the 1980s, some of its technology is very old and esoteric. To repair the scope, NASA brought back alumni staffers who pored over 40 year old schematics with today’s engineers.

IT departments everywhere joke that the solution to all tech problems is to turn the system on and off, but the solution to Hubble’s problems was not nearly so simple (although, um, that was actually the solution…in a way).

First the NASA team believed a memory module was degrading and switched to other modules. When that did not work, they turned on Hubble’s backup payload computer (for the first time since Hubble was launched to space). Then they carefully turned components on and off to analyze potential faults in the the Command Unit/Science Data Formatter and the Power Control Unit. Although this sounds straightforward, it involved a carefully planned use of backup “safe mode” (from the backup computer) and a laborious process of switching circuits and interfaces.

As it turns out the power supply was at fault, but there is a backup of that too! Now the Hubble is taking pictures of the universe again (like this new picture immediately above–which was imaged since the space telescope returned from its near death glitch). Hurray for Hubble! Imagine how much astronomers will be able to accomplish when they have two space telescopes, assuming everything goes right with the James Webb telescope this autumn.

I have noticed that today’s social media feed (and even the actual media feed) is filled with people who are angry about billionaires going to space. Now there are lots of actual reasons to be quite angry about the existence of so many billionaires and their ever greater consumption of humankind’s limited resources! For example, I am furious at how easy it is to pour dark money into politics and buy up right-wing politicians without anybody finding out about it (or other politicians too, I guess…but apparently most oligarch money quietly goes to the right). Likewise, I am angry at how billionaires use their enormous wealth to skew markets. Such wealth is already a product of market tampering and political favoritism. Where you find billionaires you find monopolies, monopsonies, and cartels. You also find the attendant ills of price-fixing, regulatory capture, and strangled innovation.

Above all, where you find billionaires, you find graft. What is even the point of having so much money other than to convert it into power over courts, and police, and laws, and rules?

So billionaires (or really the status inequality which they represent) are a big problem…but that doesn’t seem to be what is making everyone angry about Branson, Musk, Bezos, et al. Instead on social media I find lots of variants of the tired old line “with so many problems here on Earth, how could you spend that money on space?” (although, in fairness, a close second was “how about they pay their taxes instead?” and that criticism is absolutely on point). A lot of people seem angry about “joyrides and stunts” from these plutocratonauts. It makes me worry that hatred of these creeps is transforming into more pushback against space exploration–and none of us can afford that!

Commercialization of space has a sort of dinosaur’s wing problem. Archaeopteryx obviously gleaned all sorts of advantages by flying around on stylish feathered wings, but how did evolution bridge the awkward gap between such gracile bird-like fliers and their ungainly forbears who just had flaps and pin feathers? There are irrefutable reasons for nation-states to pour money into space exploration (“confers military and technological dominance” jumps first to mind), but what entices entrepreneurs to try to scale such formidable barriers to entry? The first satellite provided the Soviet Union control of the heavens. The first space hotel will provide a way to die trying to use the toilet.

Perhaps this generation of space billionaires is the transitional flap which will someday develop into a functional wing (perhaps a more apt metaphor for this would involve the freewheeling early days of private aviation which involved all sorts of Lindbergs and Howard Hughes).

Also maybe spending this sort of money will actually provide some economic returns. When I get money, I spend it on catfood, beans, shoes, electricity, and internet. Billionaires don’t have a billion more cats than me or use a billion times more electricity, or need a billion more boots (and frankly, I doubt they even eat beans at all). Even with a dozen mansions, a super yacht, and a gulfstream (and a non-bean-based menu) spending simply does not keep up with capital accumulation–their money is hoarded. but money spent on space is actually spent here on Earth (on engineering, materials science, researchers, and other useful things)

Or we could just tax these guys properly and spend the money on scientifically useful space exploration (and medical research, and infrastructure, and fundamental R&D etc.). Yet for some reason, politicians don’t seem to be rushing to close loopholes and collect those taxes. For right now these ungainly space jaunts may be the best way towards actual meaningful space enterprise.

Today we would like to say a special thank you to an extraordinary humanitarian whose heroic career has saved many innocent lives. Before we hand out the medals and the commendations though, it is worth looking back to one of Ferrebeekeeper’s most controversial posts. At the beginning of the Year of the Metal Rat (a year which, uhhhhh, frankly turned out to be pretty bad) we featured an article about rats and their social/emotional lives. Although people grasped the thread of the article, longstanding views about the grossness and dirtiness of rats intruded and caused some pretty painful cognitive dissonance.

This is relevant, because the humanitarian we are feting today is not a human but rather an African giant pouched rat. Meet Megawa, the most successful landmine-sniffing rat from the ranks of rats of APOPO (Anti-Persoonsmijnen Ontmijnende Product Ontwikkeling), a Belgian non-profit organization which seeks to find and remove unexploded land mines from nations once torn apart by war. For five years, Megawa has served in Cambodia on the front lines of this humane endeavor. Over the course of his career he discovered an astonishing 71 land mines and 38 items of unexploded ordnance. In acknowledgement of Megawa’s valorous service, a British organization devoted to recognizing animal heroism (since World War II!) presented the living land-mine detector with a rat-sized gold medal of valor.

People have a way of seeing past the truth of a thing, so maybe when you look at Megawa you could squint and turn the screen a bit. Perhaps that would help people who are squeamish of rats glimpse behind the large rodent to see 100 Cambodian children (or goodness knows who else) who have not been maimed or blown to bloody fragments by forgotten ordinances of a depraved era.

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Of course Megawa did not show up at the door of APOPO and volunteer. As is usually the case, the real hero is actually a team. Without animal trainers, sappers, donors, volunteers, liaisons, et cetera, Megawa would probably have never left his native Tanzania to travel to the killing fields and harvest their deadly fruit. Additionally, rats are preferred for this work because besides their sharp sense of smell and keen intelligence, they are generally too small to trigger the mines (although Megawa is certainly a mega-rat).

But whatever the case, it would be peevish to deny Megawa (and his team) a moment of well-deserved glory. African giant pouched rats can live for more than 8 years, but Megawa was born in 2014 (he trained for 2 years) and he is starting to slow down. With any luck other rats will follow in his (careful) footsteps and help us to undo some of the horrible things we have done. Imagine what would be possible if our two unstoppable species collaborated more!

Sunblaze

My flower garden in Brooklyn is overshadowed by three blossoming trees (cherry, crabapple, and dogwood) which all bloom at the same time. I plant spring flowers to blossom in tandem the trees, which means the garden opens with a minor note overture (pansies and hellebores) and then suddenly becomes a stupendous symphony of tulips and flowering trees. it is glorious…but it is over so fast, and then there is a terrible hangover of fallen petals slowly turning brown and nothing blooming. After a few weeks of recovery the summer garden begins to bloom as the roses start (usually at the very end of May). That is where the garden is at right now, and although my favorite little pink hobbit carpet roses have not yet bloomed, the rose garden has started out beautifully with this pink/orange (bittersweet color?) rose named “Sunblaze” miniature rose.

This is one of numerous beautiful orange small roses which I have bought over the years, and each has expired quite swiftly (although the rootstock of “Gingersnap” came back from the dead, albeit as an unknown seasonal rose the color of dried blood). Perhaps Sunblaze will outlast the year…or maybe this is all I will get. Whatever the case, the glorious little orange roses against the dark green background are delightful right now and have given new life and vitality to the garden. I will post more rose pictures as the older roses bloom and there I have planted other summer surprises and delights. Keep your eyes peeled for more gardening beauty and let me know what your favorite May/June flowers are in the comments.

It is Earth Day again. Each year it seems like more humans wake up to the fact that we too are animals living in an enclosed worldwide ecosystem which is quickly deteriorating. A report by the World Wildlife Fund released this past September carefully laid out evidence showing that the world’s population of fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals (other than humans and our livestock) have dwindled by 68% percent since the 1970s–and the seventies were not exactly a pre-industrial golden age! That number stays with me. If seventy percent of your friends and family were dead, you would start to wonder whether you were next. Well, seventy percent of our friends and family ARE dead (in the grand scheme of things, all of those vertebrates are pretty close relatives). Additionally the global pandemic has reminded us that maybe we really could be next. What are we going to do about it?

At this point in policy discourse various representatives of the ruling class remind us that balancing the needs of the environment with the needs of business could result in more austere lives, or, if taken far enough, could even cause job losses! In the United States, your food, shelter, and health care are all obtained through a job (unless you are inordinately wealthy). In other words, politicians threaten their constituents with death for being worried about the environment in any way that would inconvenience the oligarchs.

I am overstating this (very slightly) for effect, but if you watch the national discourse, you will see that economic threats made on behalf of the powers-that-be are a very real feature of our broken environmental discourse. The WWF paper which I just cited makes the point in a more productive way stating that a “key problem is the mismatch between the artificial ‘economic grammar’ which drives public and private policy and ‘nature’s syntax’ which determines how the real world operates.”

I wish I could more emphatically highlight that line. It drives me crazy that artificial (which is to say manmade) economic concerns are people’s main concerns and that issues of vastly greater importance are blithely dismissed as unrealistic or ingenuous. We are coming to a point where nature is pushing back harder and harder against our market-oriented global society. Many people pretend that nature simply must capitulate to our way of doing things and it is easy to look at pictures of lions being shot or old-growth trees chopped down and conclude that, yeah society’s dictates are supreme.

Yet it is that perspective which is really jejune and unrealistic. Nature makes threats too. Unlike capitalists, it always enforces its demands and always delivers on its promises (or do you perhaps know somebody who doesn’t have to eat or breath or die?) One of the faults with the way I was taught history was that the environmental calculus was removed from the great story of humankind. When ecological considerations are added back, it suddenly jumps out that Rome was not destroyed by Sulla, the Gracchi brothers, Christianity, Goths, or tax collectors. It died from desertification and agricultural collapse. So did the civilizations of Mound builders, the Ming Dynasty, the Sumerians, the Mayans, the Moshe, and on and on and on. Look afresh at history and the true environmental underpinnings of all human endeavor start to stand out more than all of the emperors, kingpriests, doges, and sultans.

All of which is to say that, in the true spirit of Earth Day, I am going to try to add some of the ecological context back into history’s sweeping story in a series of future posts. Human-made catastrophe is one of history’s only real constants. Now that civilization really has gone global, that lesson is even more unpalatable (and terrifying) than ever. Yet if we wish for a future worth having for ourselves and our descendants and all of of our extended family with fins and fur and feathers we will have to learn from such lessons quickly and well and do oh-so-many things so much better.

Eridu, the first known city, circa present
Brooklyn Brill and the Roller Dance Party of ’21 (Wayne Ferrebee, 2021) ink and watercolor on paper

Sooner or later, the end of quarantine lockdown is coming and it will be such a joyous shindig! Here is a little watercolor painting from my moleskine sketchbook which begins to conceptualize the freedom and the fun of the summer of ’21…and yet even in my imagination the roller-skating goddess is wearing a mask! I wonder how long it will be before we ever see a public gathering without some weird respiratory accessories (assuming such a thing ever happens again). Anyway, the image shows the Coney Island Boardwalk at night. In addition to the magical rollerskating disco woman–who needs no explanation–there are two novelty rubber chickens and some sentient dancing fruit (probably left over from the ’80s). An accordion player plies his craft as a shy young hotdog takes a first few tentative dance steps. While the rollercoaster runs in the background, a crab in the foreground seemingly wonders if a cigarette will give him cancer.

In the upper left of the image is a rather strange steel structure which Brooklyn residents will immediately recognize as the “Parachute Jump”. This was some sort of horrifying human sacrifice-themed amusement park novelty of the early twentieth century and its steel skeleton still lingers at the edge of the continent to remind us of delights now gone forever. Preposterously a spoonbill is flying towards the erstwhile ride. Everyone knows that is not a native bird!

Happy April Fool’s Day…and happy birthday to this blog too! We started 11 years ago, back at the apex of the bloggiferous era when everyone was blogging, and now Ferrebeekeeper might be the last blog on the internet… Gosh, where does the time go?

But we are not here for fatuous pranks or for wistful digital anniversaries: spring has sprung and even if it is 31 degrees (-.5°C) out there tonight, the garden season has also begun. I actually really like the very first act of the gardening year when all that is blooming are crocuses, hellebores, and pansies. Even if the March flowers are not perfect (although the three that I just mentioned are lovely), winter’s austerity makes the first greenery truly precious.

Also, there is an aspect to early spring gardens which is interestingly inchoate. The mud and empty flower pots remind me of a painter’s studio, or a rehearsal stage with no props and with the actors all wearing tennis shoes and mufti. Even if there are scant flowers, there is thrilling potential!

All of which is an excuse to put up pictures of my bare-bones garden before the exciting part has happened. I also find it interesting to see the commonalities between my extensive collection of cheap plastic pots (most of which came from strange dollar stores on Flatbush). Finally, even if the bare earth and empty planters don’t cause a seed in your heart to germinate, all of those green buds and tiny sprouts in the background are tulips, daffodils, and other fulsome blossoms. We will be revisiting them in Act II when the cherry tree blooms and the garden is ravishing!

Happy April! Get up and look alive!

Yesterday’s post was about the intellectual and emotional dissonance of realizing that all of the stuff American schoolchildren are taught about how our democracy works is no longer true. Our quarter-of-a-millenium long experiment in self-government is starting to fail. Thanks to the decades-old legislative logjam in the Senate, meaningful far-reaching legislation is nearly impossible to pass. In place of well-crafted legislation, we have been muddling forward with a baffling hodgepodge of conflicting executive orders and judicial rulings. American citizens (who are not the most patient people to begin with) see this dysfunction and tune out of politics–or start believing in crazed strongmen or weird conspiracy theories. How did we get here?

Although gerrymandering, political polarization, “media bubbling,” and demographic factors have all contributed to the mess, the biggest problem in American politics at this moment is the filibuster, a procedural rule which means that any United States senator can derail legislation by refusing to yield the floor unless a supermajority of 60 senators vote for cloture (which ends the debate and brings the legislation to a vote whereupon a simple majority of 51 senators can then pass the legislation). The founding fathers meant for the Senate to be counter majoritarian (since pathetic little states have the same 2 senators as large worthwhile states) however they wanted legislators to be able to make deals and pass laws! The filibuster is not in the Constitution but is a part of the senate’s self-created rules (which can arguably be changed–under certain specific circumstances–by a simple majority). The current state of affairs vis-à-vis the filibuster was made possible in 1806 thanks to the advice of the infamous Aaron Burr (who was then vice-president and thus the presiding officer of the Senate). Burr recommended the Senate get rid of a rule which allowed for a simple majority to force a vote on the underlying question being debated.

Yesterday I mischaracterized the filibuster as requiring a senator to continuously talk on the floor. For many years–from 1837 (the first time the filibuster was used) through the Civil War and up to World War I–that is how the rule was construed; however, in the modern era, the majority has preferred to avoid filibusters by moving to other business when a filibuster is threatened. I think my civics teacher was hoping to explain that back in 1988, but the exigencies of middle school prevented him from properly explaining the Byzantine complexities of Senate rules. Speaking of which, this excellent overview by the Brookings Institute actually explains all of the filibuster/cloture rules and all of their possible ramifications. Within that article we find the following troubling graph which is a fair representation of the growing importance of the ever-growing power of the minority to balk legislation.

I worry that the real point of this essay is being lost as I try to explain esoteric parliamentary rules (hardly my métier, anyway). Yet that worry should focus everyone’s attention, since it is what has effectively already happened. Mitch McConnell, the “grim reaper” of the Senate believes that Americans will not care if, through inaction and executive rulings he strips them of their rights, their wealth, and their future. He believes that faced with a complex procedural problem, Americans will blame both political parties. This benefits the Republicans who hardly care if government accomplishes nothing, since it allows them to say “government accomplishes nothing” and then pilfer the system and flout rules designed for a lifetime ago. When faced with such obfuscation and bad intentions, Americans should be furious! The U.S. government is not designed to allow Mitch McConnell to hollow out society and shovel money to his billionaire masters while China takes over the world! The fact that we have allowed him to take over our country because he is a master of mendacity and tortuous rules should shame every American voter. We should write to our senators and demand that they end the filibuster, and if they don’t we should remember to vote them out. Joe Biden also needs to dangle big rewards (and big threats) in front of Joe Mansion until the West Virginia senator properly tows the party line [this essay has taken twice as long as it should since I keep writing incandescent insults about Joe Manchin and then ruefully erasing them].

All of which is to say that the United States government is not as broken as it looks. With a single rule change, we could have 21st century infrastructure, glorious innovation, comprehensible healthcare, and an economy which makes everyone prosperous! So why has that rule not been changed? Mitch McConnell has threatened Americans with scorched earth and political apocalypse if the filibuster is reformed or eliminated. Do you like being threatened? I do not.

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