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spider eagle flounder elephant donkey

There was a long line at the Brooklyn polls tonight and plenty of time to color in this little (barely) allegorical flounder which I drew in my little sketchbook I carry with me.  Afterwards I stuck my voting sticker next to the cartoon.  Let’s see what the returns reveal as they roll in… Ferrebeekeeper will be back tomorrow with more mollusks, cities, gothic artworks, farm fowl, and so forth.

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It’s Friday night right before Pride weekend—just after a landmark Supreme Court ruling making equal marriage rights into national law throughout the United States.  I just realized I am painting a rainbow mantis shrimp (as a part of one of my weird paintings).  Tomorrow I am going to a children’s birthday party to paint faces.  It occurs to me that maybe I should write about rainbows—the quintessential manifestation of color, joie de vivre, and liberation (political, sexual, spiritual, and otherwise).

Landscape with Rainbow (Joseph Anton Koch, 1824, oil on canvas)

Landscape with Rainbow (Joseph Anton Koch, 1824, oil on canvas)

Of course rainbows are really a meteorological/optic phenomenon which can be seen whenever there are water drops suspended in the atmosphere with sunlight shining through (from behind the observer) at a particular angle. The light is refracted into a prismatic range of visible wavelengths.  This rote description however does scarce justice to the great beauty of the effect which has a transcendent glowing loveliness.

Iris, Goddess of the Rainbow

Iris, Goddess of the Rainbow

Thanks to this otherworldly beauty, the rainbow has many mythological associations in different pantheons: divine messengers use it as a bridge in Greek and Norse mythology, while the rainbow serpent rides it throughout the multiverse in aboriginal myth!  In the Judeo-Christian Bible, the rainbow represents God’s covenant not to destroy all life ever again…by means of flood (a binding promise which always struck me as dangerously undermined by the appended clause).   The leprechauns’ gold is hidden at the end of the rainbow—which is a place which can never be reached since the colors are an effect of light and not a real object (which makes it a perfect hiding place for the fantasy gold of mythical beings).

US World War I Victory Medal

US World War I Victory Medal

Rainbows have a long history as political symbols as well. The rainbow was the logo of the Cooperative movement during the German Peasant’s War of the 16th century (a profoundly unhappy social lesson which I will write about in detail as soon as I get some of that leprechaun gold). It has been used as a general symbol of peace after the World Wars (and even longer in Italy) and of racial cooperation in the sixties and, more especially, in post-Apartheid South Africa.  Since the seventies, the rainbow has been the symbol of gay pride and the LGBT social movement—progressive trends which have made astounding transfigurative leaps within my own lifetime. The original pride flag was designed by San Francisco artist Gilbert Baker in 1978 for the first Pride parade (which took place of June 25th of that year).

The original 8-color Pride Flag

The original 8-color Pride Flag

Baker’s original eight stripe LGBT rainbow has been gradually pared down to six colors by marketers in their obsessive bid to make things more simple and iconic (a broader sales philosophy which seems to me to strip the beauty and meaning from many aspects of the world).  Hopefully the rainbow—symbolic or real–won’t be further compromised by such dodgy principles!  In the meantime have a delightful midsummer weekend and celebrate.  Here in New York, it is supposed to rain and be beautiful at the same time, so perhaps we will get a real rainbow to compare with all of the flags and ornaments.

Today's Pride Flag

Today’s Pride Flag

bee

Conservationists and biologists often have a hard time explaining their concepts and concerns to politicians and business leaders:  our leaders are frequently motivated by political and economic calculations which seem pretty far removed from the living world.  One of the ideas which environmentalists have invented in order to rectify this communications problem is “ecosystem services” the concept that there is a real and calculable use value of living organisms and systems.  A famous example right now is bees—which pollinate crops and thus provide immediate tangible value to fruit and vegetable farmers.  There are all sorts of fruits, nuts, vegetables, and other crops which would not grow without bees.  Some other current examples are wetlands—which filter water and provide a sort of storm safety zone around coasts—or fisheries which provided delicious fish.  By putting a pricetag on ecosystems and endangered animals, scientists hope to emphasize to leaders how important conservation is.

Eco what?  Yeah, that's great now run along.

Eco what? Yeah, that’s great now run along.

Unfortunately this methodology is prone to all sorts of problems, as was demonstrated by a bee study for Nature Communications which was conducted by a team lead by David Kleijn.  The survey set about assessing to what extent economically useful crops are pollinated by wild bees.  The authors thus hoped to appraise the ultimate value of the native bees.   You can look at the actual paper and draw your own conclusions about their assumptions and methods, but the team concluded that wild bees are immensely valuable—with a worth of about $3,251.00 per hectare of agricultural land.

Thanks, bees!

Thanks, bees!

The team however went further and broke down the economically valuable labor all of the different bees by species.  This led them to conclude that only 2% of bee species were contributing in a meaningful way to crop pollination (and this hard-working 2% of wild bees are from species which are actually doing pretty well, and seem unlikely to go extinct).  All of the remaining bees were deemed worthless shirkers of no economic use to humankind.  The paper seemed to suggest that if they all go extinct it won’t take food off the table or money out of anyone’s pockets.

Hmm...

Hmm…

What?  Are David Kleijn and his team dangerous hyper-rationalists who belong in an Ayn Rand book?  Regular readers of this blog will already be wondering about these conclusions.  Aren’t parasitoid wasps critical to protecting crops?  What ecological niche do the allegedly valueless species take up?  What happens if they die off and there are horrifying consequences which the ecologists, agricultural scientists, and theorists never anticipated?  Indeed we have seem such things happen again and again—like Australia’s rabbits or these accursed crown-of-thorns starfish.  Life is a web and when you start removing strands the entire edifice begins to flip around and malfunction in unexpected ways.

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In fact I believe the paper might be designed to poke some critical holes in the irrational nature of purely economic cost/benefit calculations.  The introductory paragraphs seem calculated to stir up the media into asking some important questions about this kind of thinking (and, of course, the paper is also designed to give a PR boost to David Kleijn and co.). However, the fact that the results may have been designed to stir up controversy does not make the fundamental questions less valid.  The fundamental calculus behind ecosystem services as a policy tool is inadequate.  But what else can we use in a world of ever-growing population and ever-diminishing resources?

SerapisHellenistic

Serapis was a deity created by fiat for political convenience. When the Macedonian empire conquered Egypt during the heady reign of Alexander the Great, it proved difficult to integrate Greek and Egyptian culture. Religion was a particular sticking point: the animal-headed & multitudinous gods of Ancient Egypt struck the Greeks as barbarous and primitive. Likewise, the Greek gods, who cared little for humans (and even less about what happened to them in the afterlife) struck the Egyptians as cold. Ptolemy I, Alexander’s satrap who came into control of the Egyptian part of the empire realized that this was a dangerous tension, and so during the 3rd century BC he proclaimed a new god, Serapis, who combined elements of Greek and Egyptian deities (although some ancient sources suggest that worship of Serapis existed before, at least in some form, and Ptolemy merely stylized and popularized him).

Serapis (Late Antique ca. 2nd Century BC)

Serapis (Late Antique ca. 2nd Century AD)

Serapis took the form of a powerful Greek nobleman with a fulsome beard, a modius upon his head, a forked scepter in his hand, and the dog of the underworld, Cerberus, at his feet. Sometimes a serpent was depicted beneath Serapis. Serapis was meant to combine the Egyptian gods Osiris, death lord of the underworld, and Apis, a mighty bull god of fertility, but soon the new deity acquired characteristics of Hades and Demeter as well (who were also deities of the underworld and fertility, respectively). Serapis thus stood for the mystical death/resurrection cycle of living things. He shepherded the dead to a comfortable land beyond while simultaneously bringing life and fecundity to the world of the living.

 

Triptych Panel with Painted Image of Serapis (Egypt, about A.D. 100, encaustic)

Triptych Panel with Painted Image of Serapis (Egypt, about A.D. 100, encaustic)

Serapis became very popular in the Greco-Roman world. During Roman times he was often portrayed as the consort of Isis (whose cult was extremely fashionable and beloved throughout the Roman sphere). Great temples—Serapeums—were built throughout Egypt and beyond to venerate the cosmopolitan international deity. Yet Serapis did not transition out of classical antiquity very well. Christians had their own deity of death and resurrection (who had uncomfortable parallels with the older god), and one of the defining moments of transition between the classical and Christian eras was the destruction of the Alexandrian Serapeum in 389 AD. Later, Renaissance classicists and scholars were drawn to the Olympian pantheon with their gripping moral dramas, but not to the perplexing syncretic figure. Yet numerous statues and artworks are left to testify to the age of Serapis, when the societies of the ancient Mediterranean world blended together (as did their deities of the underworld).

Bust of Serapis (Roman copy after a Greek original from the 4th century BC, stored in the Serapaeum of Alexandria)

Bust of Serapis (Roman copy after a Greek original from the 4th century BC, stored in the Serapaeum of Alexandria)

 

Uncle Sam at the Midland 4th of July Parade (Photo by Sylvester Washington Jr.)

Uncle Sam at the Midland 4th of July Parade (Photo by Sylvester Washington Jr.)

To celebrate the 4th of July two years ago, I wrote a blog post about the national symbol of the United States and the original alternatives contemplated by the founding fathers (a post which was awesome since it was filled with turkeys, rattlesnakes, killer whales, and eagles).  This year, I concentrate on a national mascot whom we all feel much more ambivalent about.  I am talking, of course, about the somewhat awkward and unsettling figure of Uncle Sam.

Uncle Sam (Thomas Nast, 1877, engraving)

Uncle Sam (Thomas Nast, 1877, engraving)

The concept of Uncle Sam as a fictional stand-in for the government of the United States emerged during the War of 1812 when a meat supplier stamped his meat crates with “U.S.” and soldiers joked that this meant came from “Uncle Sam” (in fact “Uncle Sam” is mentioned in the Revolutionary-era song “Yankee Doodle” but it is unclear if he is a symbol of the nation or just, you know, somebody’s uncle).   By 1816 Uncle Sam was the subject of humorous political tracts and by the time of the civil war he was a universally known representation of the United States government.   Uncle Sam is traditionally portrayed as a thin patrician man with a snow white chin beard.  He is dressed in a stars & stripe suit complete with an American flag themed hat.  The comic portentousness of the figure has made Uncle Sam popular with America’s supporters and detractors both—so one might see him waving a flag and marching in a patriotic parade in Texas (as at the top) or on Iranian government broadsheets deviously backstabbing the Iranian people for oil.  For example, here he is, portrayed as Yama, devouring the entire world through consumer culture and war.

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For a time Uncle Sam stood only for the government whereas the citizenry itself was represented by Brother Jonathan, a long-winded New England tradesman in a frock coat and striped pants (Brother Jonathan himself had begun as a symbol of New England, but gradually came to represent the whole nation).   By mid-nineteenth century Brother Jonathan was subsumed into Uncle Sam, who has remained more-or-less the same since that time (though sometimes he bulks up in muscle or in flab—depending on the cartoonist’s agenda).

Brother Jonathan Aggressively Chokes John Bull with stomach-ache-causing raw pear juice!

Brother Jonathan Aggressively Chokes John Bull with stomach-ache-causing raw pear juice!

Uncle Sam is frequently bowdlerized to sell cigars, financial vehicles, petrol, or what-have-you.  During the golden age of comics, Uncle Sam even became a sort of nightmarish DC comic book hero: he was an extra-temporal super ghost (summoned by the founding  fathers) who possessed dying patriots with superhuman powers in order to fight fascists and pirates…or something.  Frankly, the concept may have needed some work.

Excuse me?

Excuse me, but, what?

Uncle Sam is used by too many people for too many reasons, and he is just not as magnificent as an Eagle.  Even at his best, he is rather clownlike and awkward.  Before Uncle Sam or Brother Jonathan, America was represented by Columbia, a beautiful warrior goddess with a Phrygian cap and a bustier spangled with stars!  Curses!  How did we trade down to end up with a Jefferson Davis lookalike dressed like a pimp?

Although it seems like she might have gone into the phonograph and moving picture business...

Although it seems like she might have gone into the phonograph and moving picture business…

Looking even further back, Columbia herself even seems to be a rip-off of Britannia, the trident-wielding, Minerva-hatted, warrior goddess who has been a symbol of Britain’s suzerainty since Roman times.  Both Cousin Jonathan and Uncle Sam seem like line-extensions of the immensely popular John Bull.  Maybe the idea of personifying nations as people is flawed.  Having a frightening mascot in a strange primary color costume might be the right thing for a minor-league baseball team, but it ill-becomes the glory and complexity of our nation.  Perhaps we should just stick with the majestic eagle which cannot be made to look so absurd….

No!  Darn it!

No! Darn it!

I would like to interrupt the parade of anteaters, crowns, demons, and obscure colors for a brief but important political polemic.  It seems likely that the Federal budget sequester will take place tonight and that is very bad news.

As almost everyone now knows, this artificial crisis was created as an attempt to make America’s hostile and antithetical political parties work together to cut spending and balance the budget.  Unsurprisingly creating (another) arbitrary deadline failed miserably to accomplish this task–so unstructured cuts will hit big parts of the Federal budget.  Defense spending is slated to be cut by 13% and the rest of domestic spending will be trimmed by 9%.  The sequester will not touch entitlements like Medicare and Social Security (which make up the majority of the budget), because doing so would be political suicide for national politicians.

Take this and apply it randomly to existing programs.

Take this and apply it randomly to existing programs.

Some people are ok with this, and argue that the Federal budget is out of control and needs to be reined in by some means.  Nine percent and thirteen percent are not big numbers.  The American military is still the largest in the world…etc…etc… This is the wrong way to think.  As this article outlines, many of the budget cuts insidiously strike at our research budget which will direly impact the future not just of the United States but also of the other nations (and maybe the ecosystems) of the entire world.

The sequester will hurt basic science research.  Greedy Wall Street moguls will be just fine and (most likely) people at the bottom of the economic scale will be ok too, but, in twenty years humankind won’t have nanotechnology, space elevators, immortality potions, or whatever incredible thing today’s research was meant to foster.

Private companies, the Chinese, James Bond villain billionaires…all other entities capable of fundamental research are small potatoes (other than universities—which receive much of their science money from the government).  The US Government is the world’s largest source of funding of basic research money…by a lot.

Fundamental research is the one thing America is good at (well maybe we can still make pizzas, scammy software, and dumb action movies, but we can talk about that another day) and that’s okay because research is the most important thing.  Nations do not become superpowers because of indomitable spirit or cool national symbols, but because of engineering, science, and innovation. Research is the critical underpinning of economic, military, and cultural greatness.  It is also fundamental to humankind’s quest to understand and manipulate the universe (before it kills us and everything we care about).  Social security does nothing to further that objective!

Canceled due to budget cuts.

Canceled due to budget cuts.

The sequester cuts resemble a farm plan which leaves out the seed corn.  And what is the point of even running a farm then?   So, politicians, go ahead and make cuts to the budget.  Raise taxes even.  National leaders, do what you have to do, but please don’t cut the most important part of the budget because it is most abstract and lacks special interest lobbyists.  That is stupid…and it is what we are doing by default.

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