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Earth’s oceans today are defined by the disasters and exigencies of the past. When you dip a net in a shallow tropical sea it does not emerge from the waves seething with conodonts…because they died out completely during the Triassic. You could fish from the beach every night from now until the sun burns out and never catch another belemnite nor see an Archelon drag her 5 meter carapace from the sea to lay her eggs. Past disasters (and the constant ebb and flow of evolution) have removed some of the core cast from the great drama. Yet the oceans are vast: sometimes we find that an organism known only from fossils and presumed long lost has been swimming around the Comoro Islands or living in an ancient grove in Hubei. Today’s post involves a “living fossil” of this sort, but this creature was presumed lost for longer than the lobe-fin fishes or the purple frog.

This is a fossil monoplacophoran, a strange ancient superclass of single shelled mollusks which thrived in the ancient oceans of the Palaeozoic (or earlier) but then was known only through fossils. I can understand if you are shrugging about some primitive snail/limpet thing–but, my friend this is no gastropod–it is an entirely different class of mollusk which was presumed to have died out 380 million years ago. A look at the (long and complicated) taxonomy of monoplacophorans on Wikipedia is like looking at a World War I cemetery (extinct taxa are noted with a funereal superscript cross).

Monoplacophoran Diagram

Yet, scientists came to discover that not every name on the list had a cross. The monoplacophorans never fully died out. They just moved to the bottom of the oceans and stayed there for the long ages as continents drifted across the world and dinosaurs came and went. As mammals scurried out of burrows and across the world, the monoplacophorans lived their ascetic lives upon the floor of the ocean. They are still there right now, as you read these words! If you look at a picture of the colorless gray ocean bottom, you will see colorless gray ovals–the monoplacophorans (their very name makes them sound like some implacable cthulu-ish monk)

Living Fossil: Tiny mollusc makes big impression on marine biology world |  Inner Space Center

It is funny to me that ancient fossils in 400 million year old rocks were more accessible to scientists than the bottom of the ocean up until about the time I was born. Yet, since then, the bottom of the ocean has become closer as humankind’s ever-grasping arms have become longer. Lately our robot probes have reported a bit of summery warmth at the cold ocean bottom. And mining cartels are eagerly pushing to vacuum of nodules of precious ore upon the distant seabed. I truly wonder if we could look 380 million years into the future whether we will still find these tough little eremites still going about their business in the crushing depths? Or will the field of taxonomical crosses finally be complete, with these ultimate living fossils turning into yet another victim of our insatiable appetite?

When I was in secondary school in the 1980s, one of the required classes for every pupil was “Civics”. Civics, which was a broad overview of American law, civil rights, and government (with some small intersections with economic and military affairs) took place right before lunch and involved a great deal of (sometimes heated) discussion between the teacher and the students. It was also a thrilling class because we got to discuss an actual presidential election as it happened–and everyone was extremely excited over whether Michael Dukakis or George Bush (Senior!) would prevail. I also remember my fellow students getting especially worked up about 4th amendment questions, about Larry Flynn, and about how old you had to be to vote (for Bush or Dukakis!) or to run for the Senate. Although I did not notice it at the time, “Civics” at Valley Forge Middle School was taught fairly well and students who emerged with an A in the class also had a decent holistic understanding of the rights and responsibilities of citizenship and a simplified but workable macro-understanding of government.

A peripheral side note in civics class was “the filibuster” which was mentioned briefly as an obscure legislative tactic of last resort last used by racist southern politicians during the civil rights era. The filibuster was presented as a desperate measure by which a benighted United States senator could stall legislation by endlessly talking for hours and hours until he (the theoretical senator was a”he” in 1980s civics class) turned blue and keeled over, whereupon the senators could go ahead and vote about pressing national affairs. It was mentioned that the filibuster had an earlier past when it was maybe (?) used for nobler aims than just promoting segregation and Jim Crow. Somebody brought up the Jimmy Stewart movie, and then we moved on. Apparently that was all you needed to know about the filibuster back in 1988!

[actually, I think the teacher might have tried to add some additional information, but the bell rang and we rushed off to hair metal and savage adolescent delights…or at least to lunch.]

I suspect a modern version of civics class would be mostly about the filibuster and would not bother with any of that minutiae concerning the Bill of Rights, separation of Church and State, Article 1 institutions, or the draft…or any of the things which used to seem important in the 80s. The filibuster is why contemporary America is paralyzed with political deadlock and is swiftly becoming a failed state. It is why the Chinese laugh at us as a used-up empire as they build continent-striding super railroads and bribe every dictator in Africa to do their bidding. It is why young adults today shrug sadly about affairs of government and don’t bother to vote. They know that no matter how they vote, nothing will happen and nothing will ever change. The filibuster will kill any reasonable law. It will destroy all reform. It will prevent any change from the status quo of never-ending trench warfare. The filibuster is killing American democracy.

Grim Reaper Standing in the Meadow Credit: Getty

What happened? How did a footnote from civics class (humorously named after Dutch pirates!) rise up to throttle our entire society and destroy our democracy? In 1980s civics class we were taught that the true genius of the Constitution is that it allows reform. When vested interests or revanchists try to thwart the will of the electorate by means of out-of-date antidemocratic rules, the free people of the United States and our elected champions in Washington rise up and fix the system. That is no longer happening in America for a variety of reasons…but almost every one of those reasons directly or tangentially involves the Senate filibuster. Today’s post was a hair raising prequel to another essay about how to fix the rot which is affecting the world and threatening the future. Political problems are at the very heart of what is going wrong. America’s greatest political problem in 2021 is legislative gridlock. The filibuster is the cause of that problem.

I recognize that international audiences are now asleep as they read about obscure chicanery in poorly designed U.S. parliamentary rules. Yet unless the United States gets back to a political system involving good faith deal-making, the waves of nationalism and populism which are buffeting the democratic world will grow into tsunamis. We will talk about how to move forward in tomorrow’s second installment.

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The Peasant and the Birdnester (Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1568) oil on panel

Ferrebeekeeper has blogged a great deal about fancy modern colors like follyMountbatten pink, mauve, and greenery.  The names and high-falutin’ synthetic chemistry underlying the pigmentation of these faddish vogue colors really is quite recent (in the grand scheme of things I mean).  Today though, to celebrate autumn, we have a very beautiful color which has an ancient name (which goes back to at least Middle English).  According to color theorists, russet is a tertiary color–the result of combining purple and orange.  What this means in practice is that russet is a medium dark reddish-brown which looks like the floor of a forest or the unswept corners of a poultry yard. We know the word was around at least in 1363, because an English statute of that year required poor people to wear russet (although it may have been referring to a coarse woolen cloth dyed with woad and madder which, for a time was synonymous with the color).

russet-hstoe-2017_grande.jpg

Despite its associations with the hempen homespun smallfolk (or perhaps because of it), russet has an astonishing literary history.  The first scene of the first act of Hamlet ends when “the morn, in russet mantle clad, walks o’er the dew of yon high eastward hill.”  Russet, being a somber earthen color, was associated with autumn, death, and mourning (which is perhaps why we find it in the haunted scene in Hamlet).  Cromwell also referred to the color when he preferred a disciplined and seasoned captain in russet (e.g. a commoner with a commission) to a noble soldier “which you call a gentleman and is nothing else.”

rembrandt-van-rijn-a-bearded-old-man-wearing-a-brown-coat-and-russet-hat-1651_a-G-12132519-4985774

A Bearded Old Man, Wearing a Brown Coat and Russet Hat(Rembrandt van Rijn, 1651) Oil on Canvas

There is also an artistic truth behind the color which is painful for the excitable young artist to grasp.  Drawings made in medium and dark browns have a way of coming out far more beautifully than drawings made with brighter and more fashionable colors.   When I was young I kept making drawings with violet or blood red.  Why didn’t I listen to Shakespeare and Cromwell and use russet.  Courtiers of the 14th century may have sneered at it (and brown is perhaps still not the most chic color on the catwalk) but it is beautiful and it suits living things very well…which is good, for here in the temperate northern world we are about to embark upon an entire season of russet.

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