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nigel-gannet

For Valentine’s Day, I have saved this troubling obituary from the animal world.  Last month, Nigel the lonely gannet died.  Nigel lived on Mana Island, a desolate stony island about 25 kilometers northwest of Wellington, the capital of New Zealand.   Mana Island was once the home to many sea birds, but after the island was intensively farmed during the 19th and 20th centuries, the colonies failed. The…nutrients…provided by the birds gave the island rich soil but, without the birds this abundance faded away and the island’s ecosystem crashed (this is a sort of microcosm of what happened to the larger New Zealand ecosystem during the 19th and 20th centuries as waves of invasive creatures swept the remote archipelago).  New Zealand conservationists have been working to restore the empty island however they were left with a problem.  Gannets live where other gannets live.  How could they lure the oceangoing birds back to start a new bird colony?

The solution they settled upon was to play bird calls on electronic speakers and put out concrete decoys painted the handsome black white and ocher of live gannets, however this strategy did not lure gannets to Mana…except for Nigel.  He arrived a few years ago and selected a beautiful replica gannet and began to woo his concrete love with mating displays, nests, and excited chatter.  He even tried to preen her concrete feathers and explore physical intimacy with her.  Videos of Nigel trying to impress his inanimate mate became a real hit in the human world (where analogies are not unknown).  This year other living gannets finally arrived at Mana Island, and naturalists hoped that Nigel could find fulfillment and raise a family with a real bird, but it was not to be.  In late January of 2018, a ranger found Nigel dead upon his nest next to his concrete consort.  The futility of his life and bleak melancholy of his end have attracted worldwide attention.

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Ornithologists have speculated that Nigel was an odd bird, somehow injured, addled, or damaged, which is why he left his original colony. His defects, if any, were certainly not visible to the human eye and he looked like a healthy handsome seabird. Gannets dive from 30 meters (100 feet), and achieve speeds of 100 kilometres per hour (62 mph) as they enter the water.  Their speed and mass, and matchless skill as divers enables them to catch large fish deeper than most airborne birds can venture.  Nigel did all of this, but things just didn’t work out.

Except, maybe they did: there are now gannets nesting on Mana Island, brought there not by statues, but by a live gannet.  As one contemplates Nigel’s lonely life, it is hard not to imagine HIM transformed into a beautiful statue which says “Our Founder.”  We will watch the colony with interest and see if the gannets make it after their 40-year absence from Mana.

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Nigel’s life and his death raise bigger questions about the nature of life and how organisms work together, collectively and individually.  This blog has visited these issues before in posts about blood, clonal colonies, lonely geese, and siphonophores (animals made of other animals where the individual zooids serve in the capacity of organs).

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I have a long running philosophical argument with a friend concerning the nature of humankind.  He asserts that each person is a magnificent individual—a whole self-contained universe. I don’t think that is correct.  No animal is quite so solitary (unless it is the last of its kind) and especially not us: we are colony animals like mole rate or termites or honeybees.  If you see one human, you have a whole infestation.  This means our culture is as much who we are as ourselves (as becomes incredibly evident in heartbreaking cases of feral children or abused hermit loners).  The splendid fantasy of being alone is just that—a fantasy.  In reality we are as tied to our banks, gas companies, annoying colleagues, and odious loudmouth leaders more than we would ever like to admit.  We will come back to these ideas in subsequent posts, but for now Happy Valentine’s Day and RIP Nigel.  There really should be a statue of him, we could all see some of ourselves in that stone mirror…and some of humanity’s real nature in the living colony birds coming back to roost on desolate Mana Island.

Northern Gannet (Morus bassanus), sky pointing courtship display

Northern Gannet (Morus bassanus), sky pointing courtship display

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Every year we close out the year with obituaries.  I feel like the main-stream media does a pretty good job of memorializing the entertainers and showbiz folks who have passed away, so, although I loved Tom Petty, John Hillerman, Roger Moore, and John Hurt (and too many others), I will leave it to someone else to eulogize them.  Additionally, I have had less time to blog this year than I would like, so please don’t be upset if I miss a great and important scientist, algebraist, or artist.  That is what the comments are for!  I also tried to include some eminent scholars and artists from East Asia (since it feels like our counterweight cultures are divided by a gulf of misunderstanding and we overlook the cultural work being done there).  I was saddened to see how many astronauts from the golden first age of space exploration passed away.  Humankind becomes ever more insular and parochial: we squander our resources on useless giveaways to monopolistic companies and crooked oligarchs (who blow their money on status objects or remove it from circulation).  These days we barely even explore the heavens (much less travel there).  I wonder if there will ever be another generation of heroes to walk the moon or orbit the Earth once these figures from fade away.  At any rate, here is a brief list of 2017 obituaries to make us think about the brevity of life and the true nature of accomplishment:

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Zhou Youguang (January 13, 1906 – January 14, 2017) was a scholar who invented Pinyin, a system for the romanization of Mandarin Chinese (a language which does not fit easily into the Roman alphabet).  So excellent was his work that  Pinyin was officially adopted by the government of the People’s Republic of China in 1958.  Pinyin has now largely supplanted the Wade-Giles system and is the method by which Chinese is known to Western scholars or input on Roman keyboards.  Zhou Youguang lived through the dramatically changing China of the Qing Dynasty, The Republic of China, The Second World War Invasion by Japan, and The People’s Republic.  He was “sent down” during the Cultural Revolution and was critical of the Tiananmen Square Massacre.

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George A. Romero (February 4, 1940 – July 16, 2017) was the masterful director of terrifying zombie movies which were thinly veiled allegories for the problems of contemporary society.

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Kim Jong-nam (May 10 1971 – 13 February 2017): this unremarkable man was the eldest son of the genocidal sociopath Kim Jong-il,the late dictator of North Korea.  Kim Jong-nam was murdered in Singapore at the command of his brother (by means of poison, in a plot worthy of dark fantasy literature).  While Kim Jong-nam’s death is of no consequence in itself, it speaks to the criminal nature of the North Korean regime and foreshadows countless deaths to come at the mercurial will of their fat cruel tyrant.  There are two stories of why Kim Jong-nam was disinherited: in one story he was cut out of the family business for trying to sneak into Tokyo Disneyland (but insiders whisper he was exiled and ultimately murdered for favoring reform).

David Rockefeller (June 12, 1915 – March 20, 2017) was the last surviving grandson of John Davison Rockefeller Sr. (a 19th century tycoon who built the Standard Oil Trust and thus became by far the richest individual of America’s gilded age).  There was a point in the 1970s when David’s brother Nelson was Governor of New York and then Vice President of the United States, and yet David was reputed to be more powerful and connected.

Sir Nicholas Winton (May 19, 1909 – July 1, 2015) was a swordsman, banker and stockbroker who rescued of 669 Jewish children, from Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia by means of paperwork wizardry, networking, and money-raising.

Sam Shepard (November 5, 1943 – July 27, 2017) was a playwright and actor who applied the Beckett’s absurd style to themes of family, violence, and substance abuse and thus carved out a uniquely American theater style.

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Hugh Heffner (April 9, 1926 – September 27, 2017) was a controversial publisher whose magazine “Playboy” was famous for cultural articles, progressive editorials, and reproductive advice which challenged America’s puritanical mores.  The magazine was however more famous for lubricious pictures of naked women and espousing a hedonistic (sexist?) lifestyle.  This legacy, and the distasteful…extravagance…of Hugh Heffner’s private life made him a polarizing figure, but he must be mentioned (and honored) because of the debt which generation after generation of pre-internet era adolescent boys owe him.

Richard Francis Gordon Jr. (October 5, 1929 – November 6, 2017) was an American naval officer, chemist, and astronaut.  He is only one of 24 people to have flown to the moon (although he didn’t get to walk on it).  Later he helped design the space shuttle and served as Executive Vice President of the New Orleans Saints.

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Bruce McCandless II, (June 8, 1937 – December 21, 2017) was a U.S. Navy officer, pilot, and NASA astronaut who made the first untethered free flight in space.

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Wang Panyuan (c. 1908 – December 22nd, 2017) was a famous Chinese/Taiwanese painter who brought together classical Chinese painting with expressionism.

 

 

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Last week I blogged about the end of the desmostylians, a group of aquatic mammals driven into extinction by competition from the gentle (but implacably hungry) manatees. Since then, I have been worried that people are going to think I am anti-manatee. That is why I would like us all to take a moment to say farewell to Snooty the manatee, the world’s oldest captive manatee who died on Sunday (July 23, 2017) a day after his 69th birthday party. Since 1949 Snooty has been entertaining and educating visitors to the South Florida Museum in Bradenton, Florida. His death was not a result of old age, but was instead a tragic accident involving the failure of a protective hatch which closed off a maintenance-only section of the aquarium.
Apparently in the modern era, manatees in the wild usually live less than 10 years (due largely to aquatic mishaps) but a few lucky individuals have made it into their 50s. In his late 60s, Snooty was going strong and was an active, intelligent, and gregarious manatee until that cursed hatch failed. This makes one wonder how long manatees actually live when they don’t get run over with speedboats or eaten up by Portuguese conquistadors (and it also leads to other troubling thoughts about humankind’s interactions with other living creatures). I interacted with the late Ivak the walrus and Grandpa the lungfish, but I never had the chance to see Snooty. Yet I am still upset by his loss. I worry about the future of animals in our ultra-competitive dangerous world where even the world’s most respected and well-cared for manatee can have a fatal accident in his own tank. Let us say farewell to poor Snooty and keep working to better the lot of his brothers and sisters in captivity and in the wild.

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Sad news mars this bleak wintry day.  The Shedd Aquarium’s beloved Australian lungfish “Granddad” has passed away.  Granddad enjoyed basking sluggishly in his shallow pool until he beguiled viewers into not paying close attention to him, then he would rise to the top of his puddle and take a deep gasping (and very audible) slurp of air.  Lungfish are said to be among the most endearing of pet fish and Granddad enjoyed it when aquarium keepers gently petted him. He also loved eating a nutritious vegetable paste or clams or shrimp… although his particular favorite was “worm Wednesday”.  His diet changed several times during his tenure at the aquarium, as keepers learned more about how to look after him and as standards for lungfish husbandry progressed.   In his early days, he ate crayfish gathered from the pond in a local Chicago cemetery!

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With his muscular pectoral and dorsal fins, Grandad was quite magnificent, in a torpid way–like an intelligent cucumber spattered with mud and gold.   At the time of his passing, he was the oldest fish in any public zoo or aquarium in the world.  Shedd acquired him (as a full grown adult) in 1933.  After a lengthy trip across the Pacific, he traveled across the United States in 3 days in a specially outfitted life-support railroad car.

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A revealing historical passage from the Shedd aquarium’s lengthy and moving obituary describes the excitement over Granddad’s acquisition, “In anticipation of overflow crowds from the soon-to-open Century of Progress International Exposition just south of Shedd, aquarium director Walter Chute had written to the director of the Sydney aquarium with a wish list of fresh- and saltwater species. ‘We are, of course, particularly desirous of securing one or two specimens of Neoceratodus forsteri,’ he wrote, using the lungfish’s scientific name.”

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Although these days I am closer to the African lungfish who live at the Bronx zoo, I saw Grandad back in the 90s when I lived in South Chicago and I was duly impressed by him.  Indeed, in a memorable conversation during college, a group of my closest friends and I were talking about what we would wish to have as accessories if we were action figures.  Although my buddies came up with lots of cool plasma guns, miniature vehicles, and humorous inside joke items, I feel I won the conversation by saying “lungfish.” Reading about Granddad only reinforces this feeling (although possibly these days, the “Wayne” action figure would have an avant-garde flounder rather than a clever lungfish).

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Although Grandad was only around a century old when he left this world, lungfish have been here a lot longer.  The sarcopterygians are nearly 350 million years old.  Living Sarcopterygians include only the coelocanths and lungfish (although all amphibians, reptile, birds, and mammals descend directly from them and could arguably be considered Sarcopterygians).  After 8 years of writing, I have been running out of things to say about catfish.  Once again, Granddad reminds me that there is an even wider and crazier world of fish out there.

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For example, did you know that lungfish have the largest genome among the vertebrates?   It takes a lot more information to produce a “Grandad” then it does to make Einstein or Rihanna!  Although we will miss our long-lived friend (and his mate, who died in 1980), he is survived by a passel of younger Neoceratodus forsteri, who can still be visited at the aquarium.  Additionally the Australians are very protective of their dear lungfish.  Although they are rare, the government watches after their habitat  quite carefully.  With any luck the lungfish in the Shedd aquarium will be around another 84 years, and the ones in Queensland will last another 350 million.  Maybe we can take them with us to the stars and start some entirely new tetrapod lineages!

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Terry Pratchett with Starlings on his Head

Terry Pratchett with Starlings on his Head

Normally I write up all of my obituaries at the end of the year, but today I wanted to say a special farewell to Sir Terry Pratchett in thanks for his opus of delightful fantasy novels. Born in 1948 in Buckinghamshire, the successful author died today (March 12, 2014) of complications from early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. Doctors diagnosed Pratchett with the debilitating neurological disease in 2007.  He subsequently donated a substantial sum of money to the Alzheimer’s Research Trust, saying that he had spoken to several survivors of brain cancer, but no survivors of Alzheimer’s disease. This is an extremely worthwhile charity, as is Pratchett’s other great cause—saving the world’s last remaining orangutans. If you have lots of extra money, you should give some to Alzheimer’s researchers and orangutan conservationists. Additionally Sir Terry owned a greenhouse full of carnivorous plants and had a fossil sea turtle from the Eocene named after him. However, none of these details of his life are what make him important to his readers.

Librarian of the Discworld as he appears in The Discworld Companion, illustrated by Paul Kidby (Copyright Pratchett and Kidby )

Librarian of the Discworld as he appears in The Discworld Companion, illustrated by Paul Kidby (Copyright Pratchett and Kidby )

Since 1983, Sir Terry spent his years churning out Discworld novels. Discworld was a multi-racial world of beefy barbarians, doughty dwarves, incompetent wizards, operatic vampires, and naked avarice. The stories spanned across many fantastic yet strangely familiar continents, but the narrative always returned to the sprawling twin metropolis of Ankh-Morpork (which, though putatively a medieval city state, will seem instantly familiar to anyone who has set foot in London or New York).

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Like Don Quixote, the Discworld novels started out making fun of fantasy and the endless follies of life before falling deeply in love with fantasy and even more deeply in love with humankind. In the Discworld books, people are presented as benighted and greedy: their unspeakably stupid schemes to defraud each other generally drive the action (in the very first scene, Ankh-Morpork burns down moments after fire insurance is introduced). Yet the defining characteristic of the novels was the humor and humanity within the the personality of the characters, many of whom were not even technically humans. Beyond the petty scheming endemic to society, individuals were revealed to be ultimately curious and compassionate: even very unlikely figures had heroic and sympathetic natures.

Discworld characters by yenefer

Discworld characters by yenefer

As I write this I realize I am saying farewell not to Terry Pratchett, a rich balding English guy whom I did not know, but to Nanny Ogg, Cut-Me-Own-Throat Dibbler, Gaspode the Wonder Dog, Sergeant Detritus (a hulking but kindly troll), Tiffany Aching, cruel Greebo, Ponder Stibbons, the Luggage, and stalwart Carrot of the Watch.  It’s like a whole group of my friends died (along with a carnivorous sentient trunk).

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Discworld was a toy theater where Pratchett presented his ideas of what makes life beautiful and worthwhile in delightfully adroit symbols. The ultimate figure in this little macrocosm was finally revealed not to be Lord Veteneri, the philosopher-king who despotically yet benignly rules Ankh-Morpork; nor Granny Weatherwax, the flinty sorceress who protects Discworld from alien incursion; nor even Samuel Vimes, a recovering alcoholic who rose from the depths of poverty to reshape the social contract. Instead Discworld was ruled by the symbolic personification of Death, forever watching the strutting, lying, primping figures below him with bemused yet avuncular affection. After spending time with this imposing seven foot tall skeleton with glowing eyes, the reader came to learn that metaphysical mystery, supernatural solemnity, and the terrors of oblivion were no match for friendship, humor, kindness, and an egg fry-up with miscellaneous crunchy bits.

Good bye Sir Terry, your world meant the world to us and we will miss you a lot.

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Candlelight Cottage (Thomas Kinkade)

Thomas Kinkade “Painter of Light” died Friday (April 6, 2012) in Los Gatos, California at the age of 54.  Kinkade was one of the world’s most successful artists with a business empire said to generate over 100 million dollars a year (at least back in the boom days before the recession).  In order to produce his vast cannon of work, he painted swiftly with a somewhat cartoony impressionist shorthand style, and then reproduced his work through a wide range of technologies.  Copies of his paintings were available in every price grade: if one was unable to buy original artworks, there were (and are) an endless choice of hand-signed lithographs, high-tech canvas prints, posters, printed materials (calendars, cards, books, etc.), as well as plates, sculptures, clocks, and on and on.  All of this was available through multiple sales channels including the internet, catalogs, galleries, and a line of brick-and-mortar stores.  Kinkade was a uniquely American artist who took William Turner’s famous sobriquet “Painter of Light” and literally trademarked it as his own.

Art by Thomas Kinkade

Although he frequently suffered the scorn of art critics, Kinkade was upbeat about his work, which he regarded as a means to create a pleasant emotional experience for the widest possible audience.  The subjects of his paintings include idealized cottages, gardens, small towns, and churches–all of which are bathed in a fluorescent haze.  The tiny cottages glow with nostalgic perfection and the June gardens are forever soaked in the hues of sunset.  Joan Didion, an essayist who explores the interplay between aesthetics and morality in contemporary American society did not seem to regard Kinkade very highly, yet she wrote the most evocative description of his art:

A Kinkade painting was typically rendered in slightly surreal pastels. It typically featured a cottage or a house of such insistent coziness as to seem actually sinister, suggestive of a trap designed to attract Hansel and Gretel. Every window was lit, to lurid effect, as if the interior of the structure might be on fire.

Thomas Kinkade did not usually paint people in his works.  The majority of his canvases display obvious hints of life, but the inhabitants themselves are missing.  Religious iconography however is much in evidence and Kinkade frequently talked about his oeuvres in context of his Christianity.

Stepping beyond Kinkade’s obvious and remarkable business genius, his work does seem to directly touch the nostalgic, religious, avaricious wellspring of American sentiment.  It is not for Ferrebeekeeper to judge the quality of his art [ good, we would have to fend off a libel suit from his estate–ed.];  instead, as is traditional on this blog, we judge his work solely on the gothic elements therein—and these are plentiful!  Underneath the colorful candy-floss veneer there is a gothic heart.  The little bungalows and miniature mansions sitting in the deserted suburbs share architectural kinship with the glowering ruins painted by Caper David Friedrich.  The treacle gardens and empty town squares betray a similarity with churchyards and standing stones of German romanticism.  Didion is fundamentally right with her Hansel and Gretel metaphor—there is a fairy tale lurking in Kincaid’s work (and under his highly successful life).  What happens to Hansel and Gretel in our world of melting mortgages, outsourced jobs, and ecological havoc is far from clear, but it is worth pausing a moment to remember Thomas Kinkade, the warlock who stole Turner’s epithet and ruined Monet’s style in order to spin a river of gold from candy houses.

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