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There is a fundamental problem with economics.  Well, actually I am sure there are many, many problems with this pseudo-scientific discipline of resource management (which is fetishistically concerned with money instead of value).  However, this particular problem lies at the crux of the discipline’s inability to predict human behavior or bring about valuable outcomes.   We will briefly explore why we should care about economics at the end of the post, but let’s get right to the thesis and baldly state the problem which economics does not appropriately address: humans are more concerned with status than with substance at least when they are not under mortal duress (and if they are in fear of their lives, their behavior will be irrational anyway).

The usual metaphor for rational economic thought involves pie (probably because the round pastry is irresistible and because it resembles pie charts, which economists love).  According to conventional economic theory: if you get an allotted slice of pie, what matters is how big your slice is, not who gets the rest of the pie.  If an economically rational being is faced with a scenario where he gets pie for some reason, he will happily take his pie and worry about how to make the pie bigger (even if a grotesque bully hogs the majority of the pie and then doesn’t even eat it).   From this reductionist fable we can then move on to other scenarios like increasing the participant’s slice relative to other participants (zero-sum pie?), contractual niceties of pie eating, seasonally adjusted pie indexes, or twisted game theory dilemmas…or whatever.

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Yet any parent can tell you that if one sibling gets one small slice of the pie and the other sibling eats the rest, it is going to be a problem.  Children understand that pie allotment is a proxy for social worth (which is worth more than the pie).  Economists get twisted up in unnecessarily complicated numeric models (or in facile metaphors of resource allocation) and tend to overlook the real thing people are after.

Kids innately understand that money is a red herring for status, and status is true currency.  A Hollywood A-lister can wander into a bar and never pay for anything and leave in a limousine with the best-looking person present.  Their status stands above money. Likewise, the pope or some slimy cult leader or the “communist” prime minister of a failed state does not really need to truck in naked dollars and cents.

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I was arguing about the affairs of the world with one of my college friends (he has an honors degree in economics from the University of Chicago and was managing George Soros’ fortune at the time).  He was worried that populism would vitiate the rewards of globalism.  “People will vote to get a bigger slice of a smaller pie rather than a smaller slice of a bigger pie (even if the latter is a much larger relative slice)!” he exclaimed angrily.

As moneyed interests capture all available levers of power in our troubled democracy and economic productivity drops, his words seem prescient.   I assumed then that he was talking about silly plebs, but I now wonder whether he was really talking about rapacious financiers. I guess it doesn’t matter: both these factions are now backing the current leadership’s agenda of corporate amalgamation, tax-giveaways to the super rich, isolationism, and protectionism—things which ultimately decrease the pie, but make it seem larger for the moment.

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Oligarchs and reactionaries both would prefer a smaller pie—so long as they have a bigger slice for themselves.  The pie doesn’t matter—it is not a metaphor for goods and services, like economists think, instead it is a metaphor for pecking order.  If someone tells you that you are ranked 300th among the 300 people who matter to you, what does it matter what is happening in China or whether tariffs will undo national prosperity? The fundamental metaphor is not apt, and thus economists are misunderstanding why people make the choices they do. Our fundamental problems: stagnant productivity, inequality, and political deadlock come from the fact that power brokers are busy making castes and setting them in stone…not baking pies.

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Human societies have always been hierarchical and probably always will be, so why should we care if the economists get this metaphor wrong? It matters because the pie actually should matter! The fact that everyone is jockeying for status by betting on short-term stock gains (or even scammier things) is impairing our ability to do important things. We are baking the wrong sort of pies   Our system is not producing medicines it is churning out drugs.  We are not researching, we are marketing.  The “makers” are busy making monopolies and cartels rather than space robots and immortality serums.  We really would be better with a small delicious pie made of summer fruit and real butter than with the monstrosity made of saccharine, corn starch, and cellulose.  This monstrous confection is the result of the fact that our system is some weird & debased celebrity contest (our leader is a conman and a reality tv star!). Economists need to wake up to the fact that we aren’t even baking pies…we are all in a bad reality tv show or a nightmarishly catty high-school clique.

Magical Tree by JourneyArtist (deviantart)

Magical Tree
by JourneyArtist (deviantart)

Today is Arbor Day, the annual international celebration of trees. Like my distant heathen ancestors, I partake in a bit of tree worship.  Because of their immense size, strength, beauty and longevity, trees are an obvious metaphor for the numinous.  However there are also more subtle and compelling reasons that trees are the ideal symbol of divinity.

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Trees are at the center of a vast web of commensal relationships between living things.  They rely on large mutualistic collections of organisms to survive. Trees cannot live without an unseen world of symbiotic organisms in the soil. The towering plants rely on nitrogen fixing bacteria, fungi, and actinomycetes to take nutrients from the earth.  Likewise trees communicate through fungal networks which link them together in improbable ways we are only now learning about.

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Trees utilize bees, flies, monkeys, and birds for pollination…and to disseminate their seeds.  They call on different parasitoid wasps for defense through elaborate biochemicals. We should really envision a tree not as a big spiky discreet thing sitting in the lawn, but as a vast flow chart/rolodex of connections with other living organisms.

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Of course trees are not unique in being an interconnected node within a vast web of life—that is really the way all life is.  It is a grotesque human conceit that humans stand outside and above nature.  I have always thought of humanity as a problematic youngest child.  We are the favorite (for the moment). We have such gifts…but we are so arrogant, unhappy, and unstable.  And we are so so monstrously greedy.  I sometimes like to imagine trees as a gentle stable elder brother.

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Actually though, mammals are much older than flowering trees.  For hundreds of millions of years our pathetic little ancestors cowered beneath the roots of conifers, cycads, ginkgoes, tree-ferns and such.  Then, at the end of the Mesozoic, the ascent of mammals happened at the same time that the angiosperms took over the land.  Our shrewlike ancestors evolved into arboreal primates as the angiosperms themselves were becoming the forests.

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We grew up together! While the great angiosperm forests of the Eocene may not have required much from our squirrel-like grandparents, today’s forests desperately require our good graces so that they are not all converted into parking lots. Plywood, and ugly discount furniture.

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Anyway, my thoughts are getting away from me.  I only wanted today’s post to be a reminder of Arbor Day and how wonderful and beautiful trees are. Here is a small gallery of lurid yet evocative images of sacred trees!  I especially like the pictures of trees together with outer space or the cosmos (like the big portal tree at the top).  Happy Arbor Day!

Space Tree by MartijnVn on DeviantArt

Space Tree by MartijnVn on DeviantArt

Ant (M.C. Escher, 1943, Lithograph)

Ant (M.C. Escher, 1943, Lithograph)

Here are two beautiful prints of ants by the great Dutch artist M.C. Escher. In art, ants are frequently metaphors for over ripeness, rottenness or ruin (think of Dali’s ants). Yet in Escher’s works they are something else entirely. The first print, a lithograph from the grim year 1943, shows a single ant. An ant alone hardly seems to exit—they are pieces of a larger superorganism. Yet here we have one of the creatures all by herself. How lovely and delicate she is: look at her crimped antennae and graceful segmented legs. Yet the ant’s head is down, and she has a slightly forlorn cast—as though she is about to be crushed. The print was made at a time when the nations of the world organized themselves into vast battling hives and individual humans hardly seemed to exist any more than individual ants. Working in the occupied Netherlands, the comparison could hardly have escaped the artist.

Möbius Strip II (M.C. Escher, 1963, Woodcut)

Möbius Strip II (M.C. Escher, 1963, Woodcut)

 

The second print is a woodcut from 1963. A line of red ants march stolidly along a Möbius strip. Because the strip they are on is non-orientable, their little universe has only one endless side. The insects are literally traveling forever. Is this print a tableau of futility or a metaphor for the infinite? The question is about more than just the microcosm the ants are trapped within.

01016_RobinEggBlue-lI realized that this blog has done a poor job of addressing the color blue—which is one of people’s favorite colors.  Today therefore, in an early tribute to spring (which may eventually get here this year) we are writing about one of the most beautiful colors of blue there is.  The color takes its name directly from nature—from the nest of one of the most beloved birds of North America, Turdus migratorius, the American robin.  American robins are actually members of the thrush family: they superficially resemble old world robins (which are flycatchers), so European colonists lumbered us with the inaccurate name. Robins are migratory passerine birds which hunt the ground for worms and other small invertebrates as well as fruits and berries. The robin is famous for its jaunty orange breast, its vivacious style of hopping, and, above all, as a harbinger of spring.

robins-nest-web-1There are similarities between humans and robins. We are both bipedal omnivores.  Robins are unusually successful—perhaps more so than any other common passerine bird.  Additionally they are highly social and flock together to stay safe at night. However this blog post is not about the songbird (after all, when it comes to ornithology, ferrebeekeeper is solemnly devoted to galliformes and waterfowl), instead it is about the color of their eggs: robin egg blue.

eb4700e8774c6798119fd6c84a38ce55Robin egg blue is a lovely pale sky blue with a hint of green.  The name of the color has been in common use since the nineteenth century. The color appears everywhere: in crayola crayons, Tiffany jewelry boxes, spring frocks, giant bridges, and Air Force fighter jets.

Robins lay these eggs in nests which are 1.5 meters to 4 meters from the ground (5 to 15 feet).  Because the nests tend to be in low shrubby trees many children have had sad experiences watching things go wrong.  Fortunately robins are prolific parents and can sit as many as three clutches of eggs each season!  They also start nesting and laying early in April.

robin's eggCoincidentally, the aviary at the Bronx Zoo strongly featured the robin’s egg as an illustration of the powers of contingency and fatality in the world.  Visitors walk into a room with a large wall covered in hundreds of photos of lovely robin’s eggs. The next room has photos of robin hatchlings in exactly the same grid layout, but the little birds are far fewer than the eggs were: every space which lacks a hatchling photo features a little obituary of how the egg failed (or was eaten by a predator, or broken in an accident).  The next room features even fewer photos of fledgling birds–as nature continues to winnow out the unlucky.  The final room has only one or two adult robins to produce another suffusion of eggs.

robin eggI was at the zoo bird house many years ago with my then girlfriend and each of us randomly chose a particular egg in the first room to see how we fared.  My ex-girlfriend fell out of the nest and was eaten by an opossum almost immediately (!).  I survived to adolescence (which was quite rare) but was sadly captured and devoured by a hawk—so at least I had a thrilling aerial death!

Sometimes it seems like it's all hawks

Sometimes it seems like it’s all hawks

As I go through life, I often find myself thinking about the room of eggs. Although troubling, it resonates in a great many ways. The zoo meant it as a (quite effective) illustration of nature’s cruelty and caprice (and of the strategy of producing lots of offspring), but it also portrays larger themes of luck, planning, adversity, and perseverance.  In an even larger sense it represents how amazingly lucky any of us are to be here after billions of years of predation, foraging, and trying to impress fickle mates.  Yet we are indeed still here. We are the astonishingly lucky eggs who have survived by pluck and luck.  Spring will come again—and good times with it.  It’s time to buy some jaunty robin egg blue clothes and plan the next series of adventures and projects!

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Double-headed Serpent Carving (Aztec, ca. 1500 AD, wood, turquoise, spondylus, and conch)

Double-headed Serpent Carving (Aztec, ca. 1500 AD, wood, turquoise, spondylus, and conch)

In Aztec mythology, snakes are symbolic of rebirth and renewal. Since serpents regularly shed their skins and emerge shining and fresh as though made anew, they seemed to Aztec mystics to transcend the dull cycle of aging. Likewise snakes’ ability to hide in the earth, swim in water, and climb high into the rainforest canopy made them a symbol of transcending physical boundaries: snakes were seen as liaisons of the gods capable of traveling through heaven, earth, and the underworld.  In fact many of the most important Aztec gods were snakes like Xiuhcoatl (the fire serpent), Mixcoatl (the cloud serpent), and Quetzalcoatl himself (the feathered serpent who acts as chief of the gods).

Here then, as a final post of 2013 and a first post of 2014, is an exquisite Aztec artifact:  a double-headed wooden serpent inset with a mosaic of turquoise, spondylus (thorny oyster), and conch shell.  Once upon a time the ornament had eyes (possibly of gold or pyrite which were affixed to the wooden serpent with gluey beeswax) but they disappeared at some point in the five hundred years since the object was made—and their absence might make for a stronger piece. The serpent was probably worn as a pectoral (the opposite side is unadorned and hollow).  It is made from wood from the Spanish cedar (Cedrela odorata) a tree with natural termite resistance long-used to make boxes, musical instruments, furniture, and fine carvings (obviously).

(Detail)

(Detail)

Really look at the carving for a moment, it was a sacred treasure of a mighty vanished civilization. It represents the nature of time: mighty and ferocious with unknowable divine attributes, but also regular and cyclical (and beautiful).  The double-headed serpent has no beginning or end. Like an ouroboros, or a figure-eight, it is a symbol of infinity—of time closing in on itself in an unending circle.

The Aztecs of course ended: their realm blew apart in fire, bloodshed, and smallpox.  Their greatest treasures were melted down for inbred Spaniards to wear as chains…or hung up on a wall at the British museum.   But of course the Aztecs are not really gone.  Their descendants are everywhere and their customs live on.  Likewise the living spondylus shell in the ocean is the descendant of countless millions of generations of evolving mollusks—changing color, shape, and temperament over the long eons.

I chose to highlight this this simple object because it unites so many of the topics on this site: snakes, color, art, trees, history, mollusks, bees (because of the wax), the underworld, and the heavens.  The double-headed snake represents the way in which many different ideas are enmeshed with each other and flow together, even as time relentlessly pushes us all onward.  Isn’t that what life is?

Best wishes for a very happy new year and, as always thank you for reading!

(Detail)

(Detail)

eridanus-river

Eridanus is a large constellation which has been known since ancient times.   The constellation begins in the north (near Orion’s left foot) then winds south across the sky before snaking west towards Cetus the sea monster.  The river of stars which makes up Erdanus then doubles back east and eventually ends far to the south at the border with Hydrus, the water snake.  Because of its antiquity, there is some dispute as to where the name Eridanus came from:  second-century Greek astronomers believed the name indicated the sacred (mythical) river which Phaeton plummeted into after his unhappy attempt to drive the chariot of the sun.   Other etymologists, however, think that the name originated in ancient Mesopotamia where “the star of Eridu” was sacred to the primeval god Enki, lord of the abzu, a mythical abyss filled with all the fresh water in the world.  Eridu was the first known city of Earth, so the name may go back to the origin of civilization.

Enki in his watery home, the Abzu

Enki in his watery home, the Abzu

Whatever the origins of the name are, the constellation is the site of one of the strangest and most controversial objects in the heavens.  In 2007, astronomers using radio telescopes to survey the universe were astonished to discover nothing.  More specifically they discovered an immense and disconcerting amount of nothing—an enormous void in space time more than a billion light-years in diameter.  The Eridanus supervoid lies between six to 10 billion light-years away and its existence seems to be at odds with current cosmological models.

The Eridanus Supervoid (from an article by Bert Stevens)

The Eridanus Supervoid (from an article by Bert Stevens)

Cosmologists have several schools of thought concerning how the supervoid came into being and what its real nature is.  Because I am having trouble understanding any of these crazy theories, I have provided a rudimentary metaphor for each in blue (which would probably offend cosmologists, if they were reading my blog).

1)      Supporters of the standard model Big Bang theory say the region is colder because of dark energy, a hypothetical form of energy believed to permeate all of space.  If it exists, dark energy uniformly fills otherwise empty space yet interacts with none of the known forces in the universe (save gravity). The void is not empty but is filled with dark energy–which we do not yet understand: just like an empty room would seem empty to the Babylonians (despite being filled with air to us).

2)      A contrary theory proposes that the known universe orbits a supermassive black hole (in the same fashion that galaxies spiral around central black holes). This explanation would explain the “accelerating/expanding” universe as a sort of illusion: objects on the edge of the universe would be orbiting at a greater velocity than objects close to the black hole—a phenomenon which would affect their red shift relative to us.  Of course anything that got too close to the black hole in the void would be swallowed to an unknown doom into a black hole with the mass of another universe.  The universe is like an old vinyl record being spun around by a black hole in the center which is enormous beyond comprehension.  The expansion of the universe is an illusion caused by our limited perspective in such a scenario.   

3)      Laura Mersini-Houghton, a cosmologist who theorizes about the multiverse, believes that the supervoid is the imprint of another universe beyond our own.  Quantum entanglement has allowed us to see a shadow of this parallel universe in the form of the great empty spot located in Eridanus.  ??? Um, there are other universes out there which interact with our own in unknown ways which cause big holes (or maybe windows).

4)      Conservative astronomers speculate that the empty spot is an anomaly of the cosmic texture of the early universe.  Phase transition after the big bang resulted in heterogeneous distribution of matter. The universe is like a loaf of bread—sometimes it just has big holes in it because of the way it came into being.  

5)      The radiometric finding method by which the void was discovered is flawed.  The area only seems anomalously “cold” (in terms of EM emissions) because of a relatively hot ring of emissions surrounding it. The void doesn’t exist.  It was a mistake in observation.

6)      Something else entirely which we don’t yet comprehend and haven’t even imagined. Something else entirely which we don’t yet comprehend and haven’t even imagined.

I’ll be honest here.  Since I don’t have a radio telescope array or a degree in theoretical physics, these ideas are pretty hard to assay.  They are also wildly divergent.  I am therefore going to evaluate them aesthetically/emotionally (i.e. uselessly) in the following manner.  The first idea has the support of the astrophysics community, but is unsatisfactory until we have a more-than-theoretical understanding of dark energy (which could be forthcoming because of our discovery of the Higgs Bosun).  The second idea seems like it could be tested with mathematical modeling and astronomical observation (which so far seem to indicate there is no giant black hole in the middle of everything).  The third idea seems insane—and yet I have always intuitively felt that there are universes beyond this one (I’m sorry to be so guilty of such magical/hopeful thinking).  The fourth and fifth ideas seem quite plausible because they are boring (although why is the universe leavened like bread? Or why does it contain large relatively hot rings?).  The sixth idea is always applicable to everything.

Horses and Birds (M. C. Escher, 1949, wood engraving)

Horses and Birds (M. C. Escher, 1949, wood engraving)

Of course all this speculation may all be moot:  a more recent survey of the southern sky from a radio telescope in Australia suggests that there might be a much larger 3.5 billion light-year-wide void in the known universe.  That would certainly steer us back toward more conservative models of the universe, while at the same time leaving us with yet more questions.

I have lots of jobs and do lots of things, but my main source of income is working as an administrative drudge for the development office of a prestigious private university.  Development is a euphemism for asking people for money—particularly rich people (who are more generous than you might think—as evinced by the sorts of large charitable gifts they give major universities). One of my occasional duties is to help staff special events.  In such a capacity (i.e. as a footman/attendant who handed out brochures and nametags), I attended a financial math event about a month ago. Almost everyone in the room was a successful Wall Street financial employee with a comprehensive background in liberal arts as well as a high powered math degree.

The keynote speaker was a young financier who became vastly wealthy in the hedge fund world. He gave a conscientious lecture about his qualms concerning his industry. Basically, according to the speaker, most (or all) hedge fund managers suggest to potential clients that a 15% return per year is the likely upshot of investing in their hedge funds—even though, if such a thing were possible, the money created by hedge funds would quickly surpass all of the riches created by the remainder of all other enterprises (it’s amazing how a few extra points add up).  The speaker then explained the basic tenets of the industry (sadly I was too busy pillaging the immense cheese platter to listen attentively) and presented his conclusion:  the hedge fund industry does not add 15% per year every year and it is unable to do so.  Not even close. Many of its supposed gains are illusory.

"Maybe just a few slices...wait, what was that about how to get rich?"

The room erupted in angry muttering.  The richest and most generous financier (who was not the keynote speaker but many, many times wealthier) leaped up and began to assail the underlying assertions of the speaker.  In addition to his wealth, this particular financier also had a…forceful personality.  He reputedly owns a giant baronial estate in Connecticut where he emulates the lifestyle of an Edwardian grandee—complete with a downstairs staff that is not the supposed to look him in the eye!   He launched into a tirade which included the following metaphor for the financial industry.

Finance, said the wealthiest financier in the room, is a means by which society apportions resources to the sectors most in need of them.  It is like the blood.  The blood carries oxygen away from the lungs and carries waste products to the kidneys. When a person eats a meal, the blood rushes to the stomach and then subsequently rushes digested nutrients away from the intestines.  When a person runs, the blood rushes oxygen to the legs and carries off the bi-products of muscle labor.  When a person is about to make love the blood rushes to the… and there the great financier trailed off, while everyone in the room started tittering or furiously gesturing for the microphone (which I, in my tattered jacket, dutifully rushed over to them).

The financial mathematicians talked angrily for a while about how critical their industry is to making civilization run and then the last speaker angrily added that people who do not like banks, brokerages, or financial companies are free not to use them.  Then they left (leaving the cheese and cured meats almost untouched by anyone save me).  I noticed the keynote speaker’s scruples did not keep him from jumping into a chauffeured midnight blue Maybach limousine (the cheapest model of which has a base price of $344,000.00) which had been idling by the curb.

This car is stupid. Why not buy weird art?

In this age of anti-Wall Street protests, I have been thinking about the wealthy financier’s metaphor and I feel that it was apt. The financial markets are indeed supposed to deliver capital to medical research, nanotechnology firms, or to the construction industry–just as blood is meant to rush nutrients to the pancreas or to the biceps when needed.  Blood however is not supposed to build a 50 room mansion on Long Island and then buy a private jet and a dozen cigarette boats. Society’s resources are being misallocated. Our blood is bad! When I related the whole metaphor to a clever friend he likened the current state of investment banking to leukemia or some sort of esoteric metastasizing blood-borne cancer that takes over the resources of an entire body to build a useless self-sustaining tumor that then destroys the body.

So, what do we do about this cancer?

I don’t like regulations.  I feel that America has too many already.  People who are rich and powerful can afford to follow asinine bureaucratic rules by means of large teams of experts (or they can subvert or change the rules with help from their politician buddies). The same friend who likened investment banking to a cancer is a securities lawyer!  He described just a handful of the astringent requirements already laid upon the industry and they were profoundly onerous. If complex regulation were a solution to Wall Street’s excesses, it already would have kicked in.

In a certain sense it may be that the snide Wall Street guy at my event who closed the evening by telling the protesters not to use banks or corporations was right. Such a thing is already happening.  Investors are waking up to the illusory nature of the wares hawked by investment banks and huge financial firms.  I was at a development event for the business school of the university earlier this week.  The dean privately confided (to a room with 700 people) that his most talented graduates were heading towards smaller private equity firms rather than the overexposed and hated bulge bracket investment banks. In an ecosystem where the wolves are too much stronger than the sheep, they eat all of the sheep and then starve.  Newer smaller predators take their place.  This is beginning to happen. And so a new cycle begins.

But I’m not sure that just talking about the finance sector is satisfactory after the havoc that sector has caused.

Our representative democracy may have been subverted by wealthy and powerful clicks, but it is still a democracy.  Be sure to vote against any incumbents even if you are voting against your interests.  And last of all, to you protesters out there:  I’m not sure I like your drum circles or the way you dress.  Your point is ill-defined and badly articulated…but it is still a good point.  I believe you are gradually having an effect on public opinion and public discourse (even if media companies owned by billionaires say otherwise). The blood is bad! Keep on telling everyone! Such is your right in the land of the free.  But while you are doing so please be careful and be safe.  Keep your heads un-truncheoned. These bad times pass away and society will need you all to run the next generation of companies that private equity is only just starting to finance.

Vampyroteuthis infernalis (from http://www.itsnature.org/sea/other/vampire-squid/)

As you probably know, the financial firm Goldman Sachs has been famously compared to a mollusk.  During the bleakest depths of the great recession (assuming we are finally past such troubles) Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone wrote, “The world’s most powerful investment bank is a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.”  Naturally, the unbelievably rich bankers were offended and the aggrieved and bombastic spokesman for the bank Lucas Van Praag, hilariously missed the point of the insult by correctly pointing out that vampire squid are actually very small and harmless to humans.  Since then, the vampire squid has become the de facto mascot of Goldman Sachs and now represents the bank in political cartoons the same way Uncle Sam appears as the United States or a dragon represents China. The Goldman Sachs squid is usually portrayed as a giant squid dressed up in gothic garb and sporting a vampire’s voracious mien.

Gothic Squid: the reason nobody had a good job for the last three years?

Goldman Sachs indeed deserves such opprobrium for crafting shell-game style derivatives and credit default swaps which helped bring about the recession (while making the bank richer) but what did the actual vampire squid do? The real victim of the quotation was this fascinating oddity of a cephalopod which shares similarities between squids and octopuses and thus merits placement in its own unique taxonomic order, the Vampyromorphida. As Van Praag observed, vampire squid are indeed quite small: they seldom exceed 6 inches (15 cm) with another 6 inches for their tentacles.  Although they have eight arms, like octopuses, the creatures additionally possess unique retractile sensory filaments and immense blue-red eyes to help them apprehend their black surroundings. They have two light-sensitive photo-receptors on their head and their bodies are covered with photophores, specialized organs capable of producing light.  The photophores at the tips of the arms are larger than the rest and appear as white spots. Vampire squid use these photophores to communicate, to dazzle predators, to hypnotize prey, and to hide themselves by mimicking ambient surface light.

An illustration of the vampire squid by Citron

Vampire squid live in the benthic depths of the ocean 2,000-3,000 feet (600-900 meters) below sea level. They “fly” through their habitat by means of ear-like fins which project from their mantle. To deal with the inhospitable conditions of such depths, they have large gills and hemocyanin-rich blue blood.  Much like ground-water dwelling catfish mentioned in a previous post, their velvety/slimy skin is oxygen permeable in order to exploit the precious oxygen to the maximum extent.  To quote Wikipedia “The animals have weak musculature but maintain agility and buoyancy with little effort thanks to sophisticated statocysts (balancing organs akin to a human’s inner ear) and ammonium-rich gelatinous tissues closely matching the density of the surrounding seawater.”

Ballooning defensive behavior (photo by R. Flood)

Unlike most cephalopods, Vampire Squid lack ink sacs (which would be of little use in the nearly lightless depths).  To make up for the loss, they possess sacs of brightly bioluminescent mucous which they squirt out at predators to dazzle and confuse them.  Such a defense costs the squid dear and is only undertaken as a measure of last resort.  Additionally when confronted by predators, the vampire squid can inflate its webbing to appear bigger (as in the photo above). The squid pray on larval fish, copepods, prawns, cnidarians, and other deep sea arthropods.  They are eaten by deep sea fish and by deep diving marine mammals like whales, seals, and sea lions. Little is known of their reproductive cycle although young squid pass through various stages of morphologic form possessing first one set of fins, then two sets of fins, and then one again.

Journey of the Magi (Benozzo Gozzoli, 1461, fresco)

One of the metaphors commonly used to describe the entirety of humankind is the image of a parade. We hear it all the time and hardly think about it: the parade of nations, the march of progress, the triumph of man….I think it is a good image to hold in one’s head when thinking about people taken as a collective entity (and despite our pretensions of self-sufficiency, these days we are very much a super organism like a clonal colony or a hive of army ants).

Here’s how I picture it.

Imagine a new frontier (be it a virgin land, outer space, a scientific breakthrough, a manufacturing notion…anything).  Out there today are theoreticians and dreamers who are trying to envision a way to use new resources and new ideas.  Then suddenly someone has an epiphany based on a half-heard sentence, or a daydream, or a happy column of numbers and the true parade commences.  First come the explorers—robotic probes, Ponce de Leon, bathyspheres, runners-of-the-woods, and lonely obsessive men in labcoats.  Next are the early adapters: hipsters, the curious, the desperate, and the visionaries.  The progress begins to swell as politicians, business leaders, and media stars proceed past. Upon the backs and shoulders of the multitude, the great and the mighty are carried like juggernauts as ticker tape falls down around them and they preen on top of gilded palanquins.  Soldiers and legionnaires ride by frowning in their glittering armor.  The middle class pass by in sensible cars and comfortable shoes holding the hands of children with happy smiling faces.

Next come rank upon rank of the underemployed and the working poor. They are struggling to get along beneath the yellow checks cashed signs and the shadow of the workhouse. Finally at the back of the parade are the old and the sick.  The diseased and the lost are laboring to keep up.  The wounded conscript is lying in the muck barely crawling forward as the parade leaves him further and further behind.  A senile nonagenarian sits down in a rocking chair and never gets up.

And behind us all there is the detritus of our once great endeavors.  The landscape is strewn with rubbish and cast-offs.  A great winding pathway is built of garbage from gum wrappers to whale bone corsets to smashed bronze cannons to gnawed mammoth bones.  Along the empty road there are old cities waning away to irrelevance and there are cities entirely lost—burned, abandoned, or buried in the sand–going back to ancient Eridu itself.  And there is an endless trail of corpses slowly returning to the mud.

Ultimately the trail leads back to the dry highlands of eastern Africa, but where the parade is going is anyone’s guess.  Picture it in your head dear reader.  Smile and wave while the golden light shines on you and the horns play impossibly beautiful music tinged with sadness…

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