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Great Flounder

The Great Flounder Float at the start of the 2019 Mermaid Parade

I’m sorry about last week’s paucity of blog posts.  I was busy building a float for the 2019 Mermaid Parade at Coney Island! This annual festival to Poseidon occurs on a Saturday close to the Summer solstice and is the scene of enormous creative extravagance and burlesque merriment…all in the name of ocean appreciation, of course.  Last year I attended with a rolling flatfish float, and although that was a hard day, it was also a noteworthy success.

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Mermaid Parade 2018

Alas, parades are like Hollywood blockbuster movies…sequels require even bigger and better special effects (and it is easier to get things wrong).  Last year’s float worked and people really enjoyed the spinning wheel of horoscope signs, but it was nearly impossible to transport.  After an unhappy run-in with the front door, my roommate and I ended up death marching the thing to Coney island (which is about 7 miles away) at 2:00 AM the day before the parade.  Thus, for this year’s Mermaid Parade, I decided to build a magnificent 6.5 meter (21 foot) flounder puppet out of fabric which I could roll up and transport with ease! Genius! We could handle the flounder high above our heads with 3 meter (10 foot) wooden poles and their would be no difficulties like last year.

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A quick trip to the trimmings district provided me with hundreds of iridescent ultrasequins to use as scales. Then it was just a matter of hours and hours and hours with the scissors and the hot glue gun (coincidentally, I don’t think I have fingerprints anymore).  I bullied some hapless friends into attending the parade with me and another one of my friends, the great Lebanese artist Lara Nasser took these pictures (you should check out her brilliant but disquieting art which contextualizes the uneasy nexus of religion, politics, and gender in contemporary Beirut).

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Now, people who have jobs as actuaries, account supervisors, and crooked economists do not recognize this, but when you make actual things, there are always unexpected problems.  I should have built some prototype giant puppets, or at least watched old footage of carnival in Brazil.   Although I did some test runs and reinforced the fish with some struts made of rigid plastic tubing (cough, chopped-up hula hoops), the great flounder float had a tendency to droop when there was not a stiff wind.  When there was a stiff wind, the mighty halibut was more than capable of manhandling the puny humans trying to move it around the Coney Island environment.

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The giant tablecloth was weirdly translucent, yet it was heavier than expected as well, as were the 10 foot poles.   In the disorganized scrum to line up we kept getting stiff armed by groups of majorettes and half-naked flamingos.

Then, as the parade started in earnest, so did the wind and we were suddenly wrestling a giant sky halibut.  It must have looked like a sad episode of “America’s Stupidest Catch” as we reeled around Surf Avenue trying not to get knocked down.  The fish gods were angry!

Although we tried valiantly to contain this situation, the float was stronger than the three of us.  The glistening flatfish snapped the two outermost poles and then angrily bludgeoned the woebegone attendants with its fins as the audience watched with good-natured drunken derision.  We tried to carry the flounder horizontally (like the tablecloth it originally was), but soon there were recriminations, counter proposals, and a decision to withdraw.  Arguably this was the right decision, but we were trapped in a 2 mile chute bounded by steel barricades.  There was no escape except a long sprint of shame with the now unworkable fish sadly dangling behind us.

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This stung at the time, but, in retrospect, who cares about a good competent performance? This is America in 2019 and what we love most here and now is a hot mess!  Parades are about spectacle anyway.

So, um, does anybody want to come with me next year? I am not sure how I can top being beaten up by a 21 foot long flatfish in front of 50,000 people but we will think of something (although this particular group of friends may not be into additional parades).  There is no way to know what will happen in 2020 (not without some sort of all-knowing oracle, anyway), but I have a feeling it is a year which will feature plenty of new melt-downs and unintentional floundering.

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Two days ago, Ferrebeekeeper wrote about Earth’s magnetic field, an underappreciated invisible force-field which keeps the planet habitable by preventing solar wind from blowing away our atmosphere and oceans (we need those!).  Long ago, Venus and Mars seemingly had liquid oceans and nice atmospheres, but something went wrong (?) with their magnetic fields a billion or so years ago, and just look at them now (tuts censoriously). But maybe we shouldn’t be so quick to judge our neighbors…Five hundred and sixty-five million years ago, the Earth underwent a magnetic crisis too.

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Geologists have been studying fragments of  plagioclase and clinopyroxene from the ancient continental shield of Canada to learn about the state of the planet’s magnetic fields in the ancient past.  As they form, these crystals trap tiny magnetized iron fragments in place like the needles of little compasses.  Scientists can thus study the deep history of the magnetosphere.  As they studied magnetic crystals that were formed 565 million years ago, they found some troubling things: half a billion years ago, the Earth’s magnetic field was over 10 times weaker than what it is today.  Additionally the poles were rapidly fluctuating between north and south at an unexpected rate.

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A closer reading of all of this suggests that 550 million years ago the Earth’s magnetic field nearly collapsed! (for a look at what that means, just walk around Mars).  Life was saved because the solid nickel iron core of Earth nucleated from the molten core at that time.  Instead of a field collapse, our magnetic field became much stronger as the spinning solid inner core and the convection cycles of the molten outer core worked together to form a super geodynamo.  Coincidentally, 541 million years ago is familiar to paleontologists as the inception of the Cambrian explosion, when multitudinous animal life forms appeared on Earth. It is such an important point that it divides the Phanerozoic (filled with mushrooms, megafauna, liverworts, and Roman centurions) from the Proterozoic (billions of years of bacterial soup).   Just a coincidence?

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I have been wanting to write about a troubling news story from the summer, but every time I start, I get frustrated by the shortsighted selfishness which has overtaken our culture. Sometimes it seems like the very fate of our society and our planet is writ in this regional fishing controversy. Naturally it is a story about flounder—more specifically, the summer fluke, (Paralichthys dentatus). These fish are beloved by commercial and recreational fishermen who catch millions of pounds of the flatfish between Maine and the Carolinas.

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Unfortunately, the ever-growing hordes of fishermen have grown too numerous and rapacious for the poor flounder to replenish themselves. The summer fluke fishery on the East Coast of the United States has been collapsing this summer (2017). The Greater Atlantic Regional Fisheries Office “has determined that fluke are being overfished, with an estimated population that is 42 percent below the level regulators consider to be sustainable.” To keep the flounder alive for future generations of anglers, the Greater Atlantic Regional Fisheries Office imposed new restrictions on how many fish can be caught and killed.
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Here is where the story takes a peculiar turn. Wilbur Louis Ross Junior “The King of Bankruptcy” is a billionaire banker and vulture capitalist. When Donald Trump’s casinos went bankrupt due to mismanagement, overspending, and bad deals, Ross stepped in to restructure the casinos, bail out Trump, and dump the bad debt onto others. This has had a lot of consequences, but one of them is that Ross is now the United States Secretary of Commerce.

When New Jersey’s charter captains, commercial fishermen, and sundry interested parties who make a living off flounder, heard about this year’s reduced catch limits, they wrote up a counter-proposal (which involved catching a lot more fish than recommended)—and they presented this plan directly to the Secretary of Commerce (who is originally from New Jersey and has some of his palatial mansions and nine figure art collection there).

Naturally Wilbur Louis Ross Junior could not care less about the fate of a species of fish. He happily overrode the catch limitations on summer fluke. After all it makes fishermen happy and who cares about the opinion of NOAA scientists? Indeed, the NOAA is a division of the Commerce Department and it turns out that its real purpose is not to understand the ocean and the atmosphere but to make people like Ross much richer. He is probably out there somewhere right now tenting his fingers and saying “exxxxcelllent!”
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[Here he is marveling at how the subjects of the Saudi king do not dare to protest because they are beautifully afraid]

If only New Jersey and its reckless and uncaring anglers flout the rules and fish their stocks to extinction, summer fluke on the East Coast can probably still rebound, however Ross’ cavalier disregard for the ordinary procedure of fisheries limits and his inability to care about (or understand) the scientists’ rationale for fishing limits raises the all-too-real possibility that other state and national fisheries will no longer be bound by evidence-based rules.

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I suspect many people will regard the summer fluke as an immaterial victim of the corruption which is a more and more the principal feature of American business and politics, yet the flatfish is a keystone species which is located between the small prey and the large predators (I sort of look at them as the middle class of the ocean). Wilbur Louis Ross Junior was born in the thirties. What does he care if one of the dominant species of teleosts in our part of the Atlantic is overfished to the point of vanishing? Yet one would think that the watermen who live in tandem with these flounder and have made their lives off the lives of the fish might care somewhat whether the species lives or dies. I guess that is wrong though. There is a reason Wilbur Ross, The Bankruptcy King” is rich beyond reckoning. He knows how far people will go (way too far) and he knows how to exploit that for himself. I wonder what other decisions will come from the Commerce Department.

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Sad news from America’s apiculturists: nearly a third of domestic bees in the United States did not survive the winter of 2012/2013.  Before 2005 the winter loss rate was between 5% and 10%, but after that year, colony collapse disorder, a mysterious affliction which caused domestic bees to fly away and never return, ravaged the poor honeybees. Losses of 30% became common.  Beekeepers were somewhat hopeful that the worst of the scourge was passing after the winter of 2011/2012 (when losses fell to 22%) however apparently that year was anomalous.  At least it seems that this winter’s losses were not the result of classic colony collapse disorder–rather than flying away to nowhere the bees stayed put in their hives. Yet the insects they were sadly weakened and diminished and the attenuated hives proved unable to start new broods in the spring and just withered away.

WHY? (No seriously--why?)

WHY? (No seriously–why?)

This is a huge and perplexing problem.  At least a third of our food supply is dependent on the hard-working yellow and black pollinators.  Hundreds of billions of dollars are at stake—as are our favorite fruits, vegetables, and nuts.  This past year a number of studies indicated that neonicotinoid insecticides were partly to blame for bee losses (along with vampiric varroa mites, a decline of wild flowering plants, greedy beekeepers who overextend their hives, and a bacterial disease horrifyingly named “European foulbrood”) but the compounds are non-toxic to other animals and immensely lucrative to big chemical companies.  In Europe the compounds were banned this year, so comparing European bee hives with American ones in coming years should at least help us understand the problem.

Some scientists have also suggested that a lack of genetic diversity in domestic bee populations is also contributing to the problem.  Maybe we need to go online and find some new life partners from around the globe for our hymenopteran friends.  The infamous Africanized killer bees seem like they have some immunity to some of the issues behind bee die-offs.  Maybe we need to come up with a better name for those guys and see what they are up to this summer.

Sigh...so, um, what do you gentlemen do?

Sigh…so, um, what do you gentlemen do?

Honeybee on a Cherry Blossom by digiphotolover

Since 2006, beekeepers in Europe and North America have been reporting mysterious mass die-offs of honeybees.  Although this has been a problem which has sometimes affected beekeepers in the past, the worldwide scale of beehive failures subsequent after 2006 was unprecedented.  Worldwide bee populations crashed.  Since bees are directly responsible for pollinating a huge variety of domestic crops–particularly fruits and nuts—the threat to our food supply and agricultural base extended far beyond the honey production which people associate with bees.  An entire community of free-wheeling apiarists came into the limelight.  For generations these mavericks would load up their trucks with hives of bees and drive to orchards in bloom.  For the right…honorarium…they would release the bees to pollinate the almonds, broccoli, onions, apples, cherries, avocados, citrus, melons, etcetera etcetera which form the non-cereal base of the produce aisle (as an aside, I find it fascinating that there is a cadre of people paid to help plants reproduce by means of huge clouds of social insects—if you tried to explain all this to an extraterrestrial, they would shake their heads and mutter about what perverts earthlings are).

A truck of bee hives to ensure that food crops are pollinated

As bees have declined, honey has naturally become more expensive, but so too have a great many other agricultural staples.  Not only has the great dying hurt farmers and food shoppers it has also affected entire ecosystems—perhaps altering them for many years to come.  “Pollinator Conservation” (an article from the Renewable Resources Journal) opines that “Cross-pollination helps at least 30 percent of the world’s crops and 90 percent of our wild plants to thrive.”

Scientists have been rushing to get to the bottom of this worldwide problem, pointing fingers at varroa mites (invasive parasitic vampire mites from China), pesticides, global warming, transgenic crops, cell phone towers, habitat destruction, and goodness knows what else.  The lunatic fringe has leaped into the fray with theories about super bears, aliens, and Atlantis (although I could add that sentence to virtually any topic).  So far no theory has proven conclusive: exasperated entomologists have been throwing up their hands and saying maybe it’s a combination of everything.

An extremely cool illustration of Imidacloprid acting on insect nerves from Bayer (the original inventor/patent holder of the compound)

Yesterday (March 29th, 2012) two studies released in “Science” magazine made a more explicit link between colony collapse and neonicotinoid insecticides.  The first study suggested that hives exposed to imidacloprid (one of the most widely used pesticides worldwide) produced 85% fewer queen bees than the control hives.  The second study tracked individual bees with radio chips (!) to discover that bees dosed with thiamethoxam were twice as likely to suffer homing failure and not return to the hive. Suspicion has focused on neonicotinoid poisons as a culprit in hive collapse disorder for years (the compounds were hastened into use in the nineties because they were so benign to vertebrates), however the rigorously reviewed & carefully controlled studies in “Science” bring an entirely new level of evidence to the problem.  Unfortunately this also brings a new variety of problems to the problem, since neonicotinoids are tremendously important to agriculture in their own right (sorry Mother Earth) and since they are such handy poisons for, you know, not killing us and our pets and farm animals.

By its very nature building involves limits. The great cathedrals of Medieval Europe were the apogee of technology during their time—the peak accomplishment of the architects, masons, and artisans of the day.  As the centuries passed, the mighty churches became larger and more ambitious—the buildings soared ever higher on increasingly lofty flying buttresses until finally the builders reached the limits of stone and iron and mortar.

Cathédrale Saint-Pierre de Beauvais

This happened at the Cathédrale Saint-Pierre de Beauvais (hereafter Beauvais Cathedral) an incomplete cathedral which many people regard as the most daring achievement of Gothic architecture. Work was commenced on the cathedral in 1225.  From the very beginning the building was designed to be the tallest and most splendid church in the world.  This magnificence was probably partially intended as an act of defiance by France’s northern barons, who were allied with the episcopacy in a struggle with the French throne–a struggle for power which culminated when the northern lords revolted against Louis VIII and attempted to kidnap his son Louis IX (who escaped the plot to ascend first to the throne and later to sainthood, and after whom Saint Louis, Missouri is named).  Unfortunately the grandiose architectural plans were hampered by funding problems and by structural flaws.

Cathédrale Saint-Pierre de Beauvais from the west

Although Beauvais Cathedral was intended to be taller than other cathedrals, the original planners also designed the flying buttresses to be thinner. This was both to allow them to soar higher (since they weighed less!) and to allow maximum light into the stained glass windows of the building. Unfortunately the design did not work out. The cathedral collapsed in 1284 (well, actually only part of the choir vault collapsed, along with multiple flying buttresses). Contemporary structural engineers believe that the failure was the result of resonant vibrations—an unhappy mixture of spindly buttresses which were just the wrong length to cope with the region’s high winds. The cathedral was built and rebuilt off and on throughout the following centuries, with mixed results. In 1573 the structure suffered another major setback when the 153 meter tall central tower collapsed.

The Plan of Cathédrale Saint-Pierre de Beauvais (the black is extant, the gray is missing)

Today only the transept and choir remain, but they are indeed magnificent. Unfortunately, the structure is still in peril. In the sixties, the cathedral’s caretakers removed iron bars which were laterally connecting the buttresses in hopes of making the cathedral look even more graceful.  Unsurprisingly, this action caused the transept to separate from the choir. Steel rods were quickly added, but, being more rigid than iron, they seem to have increased the rate of fissure. A wide number of sundry modern braces were added throughout the eighties and nineties, and in 2001 a team of architects from Columbia University scanned the entire edifice. They hope to use their comprehensive imaging resources to design less unwieldy solutions to the cathedral’s many problems, but, at present, the world’s most ambitious gothic edifice remains a masterpiece of beauty but a failure of function.

Inside Beauvais Cathedral

A Gold Moche Headdress portraying a Sea Goddess

The Moche civilization was a culture which flourished between 100 and 800 AD in northern Peru.  Although the Moche had sophisticated agricultural know-how and created elaborate irrigation canals to water their crops, their religious iconographs shows that their hearts belonged to the ocean. This seems to be literally true, their greatest god, Ai Apaec (AKA “the decapitator”) was a horrifying aquatic deity with the arms of a crab or an octopus [I desperately wanted to feature this deity in my Gods of the Underworld Category, but there is not much hard information about him. I’m still tagging this post to that category because…well, just look at him]. Ai Apaec thirsted for human blood and Moche religious ceremonies seem to have been based around human sacrifice.  There is substantial archaeological evidence available about the Moche people and their civilization.  Several large structures remain extant in the dry climate of Northern Peru.  From these temples and graves, we can get a sense of Moche society.

A Sculpture of Ai Apaec, the Decapitator (Gold, copper, and polished stone)

One of the most important Moche sites is the Huaca del Sol (Shrine of the Sun) an adobe brick temple pyramid which is believed to have functioned as a royal palace, royal tombs, and as a temple.  Although a substantial portion of the complex was destroyed by the Spanish, who mined it for gold, enough remained to provide archaeologists with a picture of Moche life.  Additionally an untouched smaller temple the Huaco del Luna was discovered nearby. The conclusions drawn from studying these compounds were dramatic and horrifying.  Archaeology magazine describes two excavations and their grisly discoveries:

Bourget and his team uncovered a sacrificial plaza with the remains of at least 70 individuals–representing several sacrifice events–embedded in the mud of the plaza, accompanied by almost as many ceramic statuettes of captives. It is the first archaeological evidence of large-scale sacrifice found at a Moche site and just one of many discoveries made in the last decade at the site.

In 1999, Verano began his own excavations of a plaza near that investigated by Bourget. He found two layers of human remains, one dating to A.D. 150 to 250 and the other to A.D. 500. In both deposits, as with Bourget’s, the individuals were young men at the time of death. They had multiple healed fractures to their ribs, shoulder blades, and arms suggesting regular participation in combat. They also had cut marks on their neck vertebrae indicating their throats had been slit. The remains Verano found differed from those in the sacrificial plaza found by Bourget in one important aspect: they appeared to have been deliberately defleshed, a ritual act possibly conducted so the cleaned bones could be hung from the pyramid as trophies–a familiar theme depicted in Moche art.

A view of the Huaca de la Luna, with Cerro Blanco in the background.

In 2006, Archaeologists were fortunate enough to discover an extremely well-preserved Moche mummy.  Peru This Week outlined the discovery, writing, “The mummy, herself 1,500 years old, is of a woman in her 20s, believed to be an elite member of the Moche tribe. The skeleton of an adolescent girl offered in sacrifice was found with a rope still around its neck. The archaeologists from Peru and the US found the mummy at a site called El Brujo on the north coast near Trujillo. They have dated the mummy to about 450 AD.”

We know a great deal about Moche culture not merely from such rich archaeological finds but also from the vivid artistic skills of the Moche themselves.  Not only were they accomplished painters, the Moche were among the world’s great ceramics makers.  They crafted vessels which beautifully portrayed deer, birds, mollusks (like the spiny oyster), and other sea creatures.  They also made many ceramic art objects portraying war, agriculture, economic activities, and copulation.  Many of these Moche ceramics grace the world’s great museums: the expressive grace of the crafting speaks to a society which understood and revered beauty.

A Frog-shaped Moche Vessel (Ceramic with earth glaze)

The decline and failure of Moche civilization is something of a mystery.  The civilization reached an apogee early in the 6th century.  Then the great communities of that era appear to have been wiped out by the climate change which affected civilizations worldwide.  It seems like the horrible weather events of 535–536 played particular havoc with Moche society.  However the Moche survived these upheavels and settlements have been discovered from the middle of the seventh century onward to 800 AD.  The character of these latter communities is different from that of the golden age Moche civilizations.  Fortifications were much in evidence and the trade and agricultural underpinnings of civilization seem to have been much reduced.  Perhaps the Moche were involved in a series of internal battles among varying factions and elites.

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