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Happy New Year! Welcome back to Ferrebeekeeper.  We’ll talk about the perils and sweet promises of 2018 later this week.  It is a year which offers much…assuming we can prevent complete political meltdown, war, and pestilential horror (and can manage our empty & overheating economy into something more useful). There is another election coming (thank goodness).  Innovation,experimentation, and exploration, though woefully underfunded, still continue.Here at the old blogstead, I am adding some new topics and leaving behind some older themes which are played out. Also, for my professional life, I am planning a big new art project and some exciting shows. So keep watching for details on all of these things!

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But first I want to start the year with a homily from my grandmother.  Grandma Ferrebee is (locally) famous for her kindness and generosity, but also for her earthy wit and her grasp of the barnyard fundamentals which underlay the (thin) veneer of society. Additionally, she ran a beer hall in rural West Virginia for decades so beneath the affable exterior is the cold steel required to run a small business of any sort, much less one with a lot of drunken hillfolk running amok.  I didn’t always appreciate her bucolic wisdom when I was younger (the scatological nature often struck me as unseemly) yet lately this fable seems uniquely apt. Here it is (paraphrased):

Once upon a time the organs of the body became embroiled in a noisy contest concerning which organ was preeminent and controlled the body.

The brain said “I am the seat of intellect and I direct all of the conscious and unconscious nervous impulses.  The limbs do what I say and the body responds to my commands. I alone can apprehend the future and create lofty abstruse thoughts of things beyond rude physicality.  I properly and truly rule the body.”

The heart then replied “I am the seat of emotions.  Your fears and joys…your hatred and yearning comes from me.  I am synonymous with love–eternal and sublime! Plus, on a more literal level, I pump the blood which make all of the organs function.  The heart is the center of a person and I am the most important organ.”  

Then, before any of the other organs could say their piece, the ass stopped working: the system filled up with shit and the whole body died.

It’s…uh..pithier when Grandma tells it with her West Virginia twang and her knowing looks, but I think I have conveyed the fundamental message.  It is a message we need to think about in our “United” States. This red/blue rubbish is useful for pundits, but poisonous for a functioning nation.  Our political parties of increasing furious ideological purity are becoming like some autoimmune illness. Ayn Rand Republicans who believe that a healthy and robust society can exist without a thriving middle class and contented workers (to say nothing of scientists, creative professionals, and technocrats) are deadly con-artists misleading us into disaster

Likewise democrats who split hairs over esoteric social manners, and carp forevermore on status conveyed by hereditary victimization left over from bygone eras have lost sight of the future as well.  We have a motto about how things are supposed to work.

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It is a dangerous time for our nation.  I am writing here about The United States, which I know best, but all of the great democracies are afflicted by a wave of strife and malaise…indeed the whole world is convulsed by change so rapid that only authoritarian nations are dealing with it at all (mostly by pilfering the till and building Potemkin cities).  We can talk about the larger ramifications of this in the coming year, but first we need to talk and listen instead of shouting slogans like we are in the cultural revolution or something.  Democracy is not inferior to whatever China calls its brand of oppressive authoritarianism, but we need some reforms to make it work right. And we need to be patient and compassionate with each other while this process happens.

Above all, we must remember that, just like in the story, society needs people of all sorts in order to function. The nation needs both the sharp-eyed riflemen from Kentucky and the shrewd-minded accountants from Montclair. The states are deeply heterogeneous but stand beside each other through any crisis–structural, cyclical, or natural. We are not the “Fiscally Independent and Selfishly Aloof States of America”. Our name is much finer than that. We need the brain and the heart (and everything else) to work together if we are going to move forward…or even survive (for with a vastly greater population, our margins for error have shrunk).  Also we need to go back and think symbolically when we look at this story and not just put the ass in control.

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This week’s big science news is that researchers have finally sequenced the gene for a cephalopod– the California two-spot octopus, Octopus bimaculoides. Geneticists and molecular biologists from the University of Chicago and Berkley worked together to unravel the entire gene—which turned out to be nearly as large as the human genome and did not contain any mass data duplication (which some vertebrate-centric scientists had thought might account for the size and complexity). To quote Business Insider, “The work will allow scientists to study the genetic factors that give way to the octopus’ odd physical traits, and may reveal novel insights not only about the unique biology of cephalopods, but also about the evolution of traits that give rise to a complex nervous system and adaptive camouflage.”

An octopus solving a puzzle

An octopus solving a puzzle

There are already some fascinating initial discoveries from the octopus gene sequence data. Not surprisingly, the scientists discovered completely unique genomic sequences for reflectins (which allow the octopus to change color instantly). Even more intriguingly, the researchers discovered a huge suffusion of protocadherins—which facilitate the interaction between neurons. Octopus seem to have many more of these neural development genes than expected–and indeed the eight legged sea creatures have twice as many protocadherins as more familiar mammalian creatures like humans. However the majority of the data requires additional study. Scientists also hope to contextualize the somewhat abstract genes by sequencing other cephalopods (particularly cuttlefish—which a different team is working on).

Why is this octopus wearing a hat? I don't get it.

Why is this octopus wearing a hat? I don’t get it.

Unfortunately I am not a geneticist and the niceties of jumping genes are somewhat lost on me. I am however greatly interested in finding out more about the biology and evolutionary history of cephalopods. This class of organisms has attained a shockingly high degree of intelligence through a very different evolutionary path than the most intelligent vertebrates (like primates, proboscideans, cetaceans, and parrots). The clever mollusks are capable of solving difficult puzzles in unexpected ways and their donut shaped brains have long perplexed and intrigued neurologists. Perhaps further details of their genetic makeup will yield the seed for tomorrow’s transgenically created superbrains! Barring that, it would be good to understand the mechanisms of diverse neural systems and grasp more about the development of these beautiful yet unfamiliar creatures.

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In recent years, bioethicists and neurological surgeons have been troubled by accounts of a controversial surgery being widely performed in China.  The procedure in question consists of surgically destroying the pleasure center of the brain in order to prevent opium addicts and alcoholics from relapsing into their addictions.  As you might imagine, destroying the physiological structure responsible for one of the most fundamental human motivations does frequently solve addiction problems.  Unfortunately, the surgery also tends to do away with longing, joy, and basic motivation to do anything.  The Chinese authors of the papers put a more positive spin on these results and described the post-operative subjects as “mildness oriented” (i.e. compliant).

3D Brain image (Nucleus Accumbens in red)

3D Brain image (Nucleus Accumbens in red)

This surgical procedure is technically known as “ablation of the nucleus accumbens” and involves cutting open a subject’s skull and using heat to destroy small portions of the brain (which are recursively located in both hemispheres of the brain). Time Magazine (in this useful article) describes the two nucleus accumbens as regions of the brain “saturated with neurons containing dopamine and endogenous opioids, which are involved in pleasure and desire related both to drugs and to ordinary experiences like eating, love and sex.” This procedure is performed while subjects (one shies away from saying “patients”) are awake and conscious in order to minimize damage to other regions of the brain responsible for speech, memory, and movement.

Painting by Mariko Vaughan (acrylic on canvas)

Painting by Mariko Vaughan (acrylic on canvas)

The western medical/scientific community is trying to figure out how to approach this procedure.  General consensus seems to be that the procedure is “horribly misguided” (apparently a medical euphemism for “a crime against humanity”), however a number of American and European doctors recommend publishing the results of these experimental surgeries in order to further understanding of the human brain–while not actually recommending the procedure.  While the surgery does result in a recovery-rate from addition a few percentage points higher than counseling or other non-surgical therapies, it also frequently results in loss of memory, radical personality change, and other emotional problems (not to mention occasional serious problems such as death or coma which are an inherent danger of brain surgery).

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A while ago I read a science fiction novel set in the far future.  People who were anxious or miserable could volunteer for Radical Anxiety Termination—a procedure which fully eliminated depression, fear, and suffering, albeit at the cost of all personal volition.  The Radical Anxiety Termination participants immediately became slaves who were sold and traded for whatever uses their masters desired.  The novel was predictably troubling. It does not seem like the Chinese medical establishment has yet perfected Radical Anxiety Termination but they are on the dark road to such an outcome and they need to leave that twisted path immediately.  Just as lobotomies performed in Europe and the United States during the early 20th century proved to be a therapeutic dead end (and a terrible, terrible mistake) so too this surgery is a collective degradation to emotionally ill victims and a fundamental attack on human dignity.

Have you ever watched a tiny red ant scurrying through the backyard only to be astounded that the ant seems like a giant when it walks by some much smaller black ants?  Such observations have always caused me to wonder how small insects could become.  What are the smallest insects out there and just how tiny are they?   The answer is actually astonishing, and, like most good answers it just brings up more questions.  Most entomologists believe the tiniest living insects are the fairyflies, infinitesimally minute parasitoid wasps which live on or inside the tiny eggs of thrips(well, some fairflies also live inside the brains of other insects, but let’s not think about that right now).  Fairyflies are smaller than many single cell organisms like paramecia, amoebas, and euglenas.    Dicopomorpha echmepterygis,  a wasp from Costa Rica, is an astonishing  .13 millimeters in length.   Although many of these wasps fly, they are so tiny that they don’t have conventional wings:  some of the smaller specimens have long cilia-like hairs which they use to row through the air (the fluid dynamics of which are considerably different for creatures so small).

Fairy wasp with single celled organisms under electron microscope

In fact the wasps are so tiny that the millions of individual cells which make up their tissues and organs have to be very miniscule indeed.  In fact, according to physics, the brains of fairyflies should not work.  Many of the neural axons are smaller than 0.1 micrometre in diameter (and the smallest axons were a mere 0.045 μm).  At such sizes, the electrical action of axons should not work properly.   An article on Newscientist describes the basic problem:

 …according to calculations by Simon Laughlin of the University of Cambridge and colleagues, axons thinner than 0.1 μm simply shouldn’t work. Axons carry messages in waves of electrical activity called action potentials, which are generated when a chemical signal causes a large number of channels in a cell’s outer membrane to open and allow positively charged ions into the axon. At any given moment some of those channels may open spontaneously, but the number involved isn’t enough to accidentally trigger an action potential, says Laughlin – unless the axon is very thin.

So how do the wasps continue to fly around and parasitize the eggs of other creatures if the electrical impulses of their brains do not work?  German researchers speculate that the axons of wasp brains work mechanically rather than electrically.  The tiny axons touch each other physically instead of by means of electrical action.  If this is correct it means the wasps are analogue creatures with little clockwork minds!  If they were any larger or more complex, this would not work, but because of their small size and simple drives, they can manage to operate with slow-moving machine-like brains.

Micrograph of a fairyfly (fairy wasp)

The Short-Beaked Echidna (Source: M McKelvey/P Rismiller/)

Last year featured an in-depth examination of Echidna, the terrifying “mother of monsters” from Greek mythology.  To start this year on a glorious high note, here is an essay concerning the actual echidnas (Tachyglossidae), a family of mammals from Australia and New Guinea.  The echidnas were much wronged when explorers named them after a hellish demigoddess.  Although I have never met—or even seen—a living echidna, they are one of my favorite creatures for many reasons.  Combining a gentle temperament with fascinatingly alien intelligence, the echidna is a delightful animal whose taxonomical oddity reveals the strange paths of fate which life takes over great expanses of time.

Along with the charismatic platypus, the echidna is the last of the egg-laying monotremes.  Monotremes are a very different sort of mammal than the other two major divisions of mammals, the eutheria and the metatheria.  The teeming eutheria (familiar mammals like shrews, manatees, picas, goats, and humans) nourish their fetal young by means of a placenta.  The ancient metatheria (marsupials) sustain their developing young in a special pouch.  The monotremes predate both groups and give evidence of mammals’ origins.  Genetic studies suggest that the monotremes originated from some reptile-like ancestor about 220 million years ago.  The long and tangled family history of the mammals and their antecedents will have to wait for another post–suffice to say that monotremes have been here for an extraordinarily long time.  The surviving monotremes, however, are not primitive atavists, but extraordinarily advanced descendants of those ancient progenitor mammals.  They have evolved and survived in varying fashions over the long eons.  Over those millions and millions of years, the echidna developed a very interesting brain.

Echidnas have the largest neocortex relative to bodymass of any creature.  The neocortex (which Hercule Poirot always creepily referred to as “the little grey cells”) is involved in higher brain functions such as spacial cognition, logic, and problem solving.  This special tool has taken the echidna far: like humans, and unlike almost all other creatures, echidnas live in very diverse habitats.  Actually it is the short-beaked echidna (Tachyglossus aculeatus) which lives in different habitats—the other two extant species live in tropical New Guinea and are little known to science.  Although all three species seem to share most traits, I am really writing solely about Tachyglossus aculeatus which ranges from the hot dry desert scrub, to the tropical rainforest, to the coast, to the cold snows of the Australian Alps (where they can lower their body temperature a few degrees above freezing and hibernate).  Echidnas live on termites and ants, omnipresent social insects which are evolutionary winners in their own right.  Echidnas dig up these insects with powerful razor claws and gobble them down using a long sticky tongue which zips in and out of a toothless tube-like mouth.  Echidnas are not known to fight each other or other animals.  In the great evolutionary battle they are pacifists (provided you are not an ant or termite) and if approached aggressively they will curl into a ball and trust their sharp spine-like hairs to keep them safe.  They are also phenomenal burrowers and can quickly tunnel down through anything other than solid stone.

An orphaned puggle being handraised.

Because of their cleverness, relatively little is known about echidnas.  They are difficult to capture since they disdain baits and can figure out most traps.  Similarly, in zoos, echidnas have proven extremely gifted at escape.  Their mating habits are largely mysterious to us but seem to involve non-confrontational competition.  The female echidna is followed for an extended period of time by a train of interested males.  In response to an unknown signal, the male echidnas begin frantically digging, trying to nudge one another out of the way.  Just how the victor emerges from this competition is unknown, but one the female has chosen, the other males walk away with no obvious rancor.  After laying her egg, the female immediately rolls it into a pouch-like fold on her abdomen.  Once the puggle has hatched, the mother echidna solicitously tends it for seven months, after which it roams off free and solitary.

Echidnas have an extra sense, electoreceptivity, but for them it is much weaker than it is in their close cousins the platypuses.  It has also been noted that echidnas vibrate. Water placed near captive echidnas shows distinct ripples in the surface. Perhaps they vocalize on frequencies beneath the range of human hearing (as do elephants).  Speaking of captivity, Echidnas have survived for up to 30 years in zoos even though it is a difficult environment for the blithesome free-roaming animals.  It is believed they live twice that long in the wild—but, again, nobody really knows.

Agh! Get away from there! I though you had a large neocortex!

Likewise nobody knows the echidnas’ total population numbers or how healthy the species is.  What is known is that, sadly, even the intelligent and peaceful echidnas are running into problems in the modern world.  Like other good-hearted pedestrians, echidnas are often killed by careless drivers.  Echidnas face increasing habitat destruction from human houses, farms, and roads.  Likewise they must deal with new predators, the dingos, which have discovered that urinating on balled-up echidnas will cause the latter to uncurl for a moment in stunned disgust (giving the ruthless dogs a chance to rip into their guts).

I wonder what echidnas think of us.  They know of our traps, our radio-tracking devices, and they know how to avoid aborigine hunters.  They are becoming wise to our deadly cars and to the dirty tricks of dingos.  Still they remain curious about people and will sometimes come out of the wilderness in groups to examine our suburbs and cities before melting back into the wild.  Humankind took a long while to understand that echidnas are not dim-witted reptilian pincushions but rather clever and highly developed generalists.  Do they generously think the same of us, or do they put humankind from their mind as something foul when they head back to the ancient, open outback?

Oedipus and the Sphinx (by Francois Xavier Fabre)

The Sphinx, another daughter of Echidna, was a monster with a human head (and torso), a lion’s body, the wings of an eagle, and a serpent for a tail.  Although the Egyptians and the Cypriots had long mythological traditions incorporating many different sphinxes, to the Greeks the Sphinx was one individual monster sent by Hera (or possibly Ares) to torment the city of Thebes.  She sat on a bluff outside the city and accosted travelers with a question.  When they were unable to answer correctly, she sprang down and strangled them to death. The question she asked is probably the most famous riddle in existence, “What goes on four legs in the morning, on two in the afternoon, and on three in the evening?”

Long-suffering Oedipus may have been accursed by ghastly fate but he alone was able to see through the monster’s abstract symbolism and give the correct answer—man, who crawls on all four as a baby, walks upright as an adult, and leans on a cane in his dotage. The sphinx had really counted on the metaphoric “day” to throw people off.  In fury and despair she hurled herself to her death once her question was answered.

The riddle challenge is ancient and its roots wind down into the advent of literature (and probably long before).  There are riddles in the bible and in Sumerian epic poetry. The internet, however, has fundamentally changed the challenge.  Back in the eighties if someone asked you a riddle and you were stumped, that was it.  Either you had to beg them for the answer, or you were out of luck.  Now you can always scour the web until you find the answer.  Here are a few of my favorite riddles.  The first is a somewhat frustrating riddle from the bible [hint: imagine you are a long-haired killing machine].  The second was asked to me by my first lover (I could never solve it and she wouldn’t tell me the answer—I finally had to ask my friend Adam for a solution).  The third was by literary giant Jonathan Swift who famously loved riddles. The fourth is a Stephen King riddle and my personal favorite (quiet you highbrows!).  I made up the fifth and sixth myself–which explains why the meter is more important than the meaning.  The last riddle is of course from Lewis Carroll.  Good luck!  I’ll give you the answers on Sunday:

1. And they said unto him, Put forth thy riddle, that we may hear it. And he said unto them, Out of the eater came forth meat, and out of the strong came forth sweetness. And they could not in three days expound the riddle. And it came to pass on the seventh day, that they said unto Samson’s wife, Entice thy husband, that he may declare unto us the riddle, lest we burn thee and thy father’s house with fire: have ye called us to take that we have? is it not so?

2. What does God never see that a king sees seldom, that we see every day?

3. We are all very little creatures;
all of us have different features.
One of us in glass is set;
One of us you’ll find in jet.
Another you may see in tin,
And a fourth is boxed within.
If the fifth you should pursue,
It can never fly from you.
What are we?

4. With no wings, I fly. With no eyes, I see. With no arms, I climb. More frightening than any beast, stronger than any foe, I am cunning, ruthless and tall; in the end, I rule all.

5. It’s short on spring but long in fall.  It has a bluff that you can’t call.  It has a wall but lacks a roof.  It has a foot that’s not a hoof.

6. Devours muck but has sweet breath. Arrives with love and then with death.

7.  Why is a raven like a writing desk?

Um...can I have another hint?

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