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Although the news of world affairs and politics has been rather bad lately, there is some more good news from the laboratory. Yesterday, an Oxford-based company, First Light Fusion, successfully tested a novel strategy to creating safe, sustainable nuclear fusion power (which is to say their test was a success–we have yet to see whether the larger concept fulfills its premise). Unlike the National Ignition Facility in California, which uses an enormous laser array to heat the hydrogen target to solar temperatures, or the ITER project (which uses a tokamak, a torus of plasma held in place by powerful magnetic fields), the British strategy is shockingly primitive–a gun shoots a super-high velocity projectile at a little cube containing two tiny spheres of deuterium. This cube is the secret ingredient for the company’s fusion plans (literally, since they hope to sell the proprietary fuel packets to everyone and make money that way).

Reading between the lines of the article announcing this information in “The Financial Times” it seems like this method does not produce as much energy as the tokamak or the laser array, however it is simpler and more scalable then those designs–if it can be made effective. So far none of the designs have produced more energy than they required, so that is quite a big if.

Coincidentally, although First Light Fusion is a British company, their main financial backer is an enormous shadowy Chinese capital company. Perhaps America’s legislators could spare some time from their busy schedule of performative white supremacy interrogations of Supreme Court candidates and suchlike culture wars gibberish to, you know, fund research into the technologies which will define the future.

Hello! I am back. I courteously request that you kindly forgive my two week absence from writing posts about dark gods, bottom-dwelling fish, the cold darkness of outer space, weird art, and, um, pretty flowers in the garden. The fact of the matter is that, after a long and vivid life, my grandfather passed away. Not only did the funeral take me out of town (back to the tiny mountain hamlet in Appalachia where my family comes from, and to a cemetery where I am related to pretty much everyone), but his death also spelled the definitive end of an era and left me with some pretty serious questions. (also I loved Grandpa and was mourning him, but we will leave such personal matters aside)

I will write up an appropriate obituary here at the end of the year, but to quickly summarize: Grandpa spent his working life overseas operating on behalf of the United States government, fighting and winning the nation’s great twentieth century battles. He was in German-occupied Italy when it fell to the allies. He was in Burma when the Imperial Japanese army was defeated. He was in Egypt during the Suez Canal Crisis, and then in Somalia, then in the Belgian Congo when it became Zaire. He was in Indonesia when the pro-communist Sukarno abdicated power for Suharto. And he finished up his foreign career in Vietnam working to best assist American allies there.

Even during the chilliest parts of the cold war, Grandpa’s work of defeating Soviet puppets (or subalterning them to become useful to the United States) was not highly visible or well-understood by Americans at home. These days that lack of diplomatic (or realpolitik) perspective is hurting us. The United States seems to benefit from having a comprehensible international competitor. After the events of the late eighties and the breakup of the Soviet Block, the perspective concerning the Cold War has gone two very opposite ways.

There is a narrative on the right that we won the Cold War outright and can now turn our back on the world and focus all of our attention on making American billionaires much richer and perfecting fundamentalist Christian theocracy. Thinkers from the left seem inclined to regard the outcome of the Cold War as foreordained and spend their energy lambasting the methods which America employed to counter Russia’s dirty tricks as some sort of capitalist imperialism or neocolonialism. Like all good-hearted people, I regard the first point of view as naive garbage which is pulling us towards fascism. Unfortunately, the well-intentioned liberal line of thinking is likewise dangerous garbage which is enabling the current international crisis of democracy. Please read this chilling article from the Atlantic about what happens when there are too few people like Grandpa (hint: we still have terrible foreign enemies and they are working hard to prolong our political stalemate and deepen our internal tensions…or just end our democracy outright and put their own puppet in charge here).

Anyway, this is a short post to explain my fortnight-long absence not to contextualize the affairs of the whole world (again, that Atlantic article does that). Also, as you can probably tell, being in West Virginia disturbed me. It is one thing to see America’s political divisions on some colorful map. It is quite another to come face to face with the number of earnest Americans who honestly believe our future lies in “far-right, authoritarian ultranationalism characterized by dictatorial power, forcible suppression of opposition, and strong regimentation of society and of the economy” (to borrow a sentence straight from Wikipedia).

So Grandpa is gone and his hard work is coming undone. I will get back to writing about the garden and the oceans, but I will try to spend more time writing about the affairs of the world. The political crisis of the 21st century is well underway and America and our embattled democratic allies are quickly losing ground abroad and at home. We are all going to have to spend more time explaining why authoritarianism is bad and why we need to spend money and time influencing what happens overseas. Likewise we are going to have to keep defending fundamental liberal and democratic values here, as well. We will have to patiently do the best we can to minimize the coming disasters of 2022 and 2024. Otherwise the red spots on the map will keep spreading and there will be no United States–just another Russian puppet of the sort that Grandpa spent his life fighting.

Hubble space telescope.

Happy news to follow up on our somewhat glum Fourth of July post! The Hubble space telescope (which went offline on June 13th, 2021 due to a failure in the main computer) has fully rebooted and is once more humankind’s eye in the sky for observing the greater universe.

The telescope, which has been orbiting Earth for 30 years, can no longer be serviced by space shuttle crews and must now be fixed remotely by command staff at Godard Space Center in Maryland. Since the Hubble scope was was built in the 1980s, some of its technology is very old and esoteric. To repair the scope, NASA brought back alumni staffers who pored over 40 year old schematics with today’s engineers.

IT departments everywhere joke that the solution to all tech problems is to turn the system on and off, but the solution to Hubble’s problems was not nearly so simple (although, um, that was actually the solution…in a way).

First the NASA team believed a memory module was degrading and switched to other modules. When that did not work, they turned on Hubble’s backup payload computer (for the first time since Hubble was launched to space). Then they carefully turned components on and off to analyze potential faults in the the Command Unit/Science Data Formatter and the Power Control Unit. Although this sounds straightforward, it involved a carefully planned use of backup “safe mode” (from the backup computer) and a laborious process of switching circuits and interfaces.

As it turns out the power supply was at fault, but there is a backup of that too! Now the Hubble is taking pictures of the universe again (like this new picture immediately above–which was imaged since the space telescope returned from its near death glitch). Hurray for Hubble! Imagine how much astronomers will be able to accomplish when they have two space telescopes, assuming everything goes right with the James Webb telescope this autumn.

Jupiter and Ganymede (Roman, late 3rd century) mosaic

Yesterday’s post about the solar system’s largest moon, Ganymede, begs for a follow-up post about the myth of Ganymede. Ganymede was an adolescent Trojan prince known for his supreme comeliness. For some reason, the young prince was out slumming as a shepherd (which is a thing princes do in myths but not in real life) and this twinkish coquetry drove all-seeing Zeus into a lather. Overcome by lust, the king of the gods assumed the form of a giant eagle and grabbed the pretty prince up in his talons and carried him off to Olympus (leaving Ganymede’s distraught hound dog baying at the clouds). At Olympus, in the halls of the gods, Ganymede became the cupbearer (and favorite male concubine) of Zeus/Jupiter and was thus granted immortality and a sort of second-rate godhood. The whole tale is a sort of a gigolo apotheosis (although classical artists did not always portray Ganymede as a willing captive).

For various reasons, all sorts of artists have been attracted to the tale over the years. The magnificent sky-god eagle and the beautiful nude prince do indeed make for a really dramatic tableau. Yet my favorite visual representations of the story are Roman, like this gorgeous relief.

Abduction of Ganymede (unknown Greco-Roman sculptor, AD 140-150), marble relief

As slave-owning masters of the world, the Romans knew the ambiguous joys of love-by-command and somehow there is always a wistful hint of coercion and mortal sadness in Roman versions of the tale (perhaps the Greek sculptors forced to carve these pieces had some commentary of their own to add). For example, in the matchless piece above, the beautiful Ganymede wears a Phrygian cap (which was a cap from Phrygia, a conquered Roman province in Greece…but also the universally understood symbol of a manumitted slave). Now, that I come to think of it, Jove’s eagle was the symbol of the Roman Empire.

Ganymede feeding the Eagle (Roman, late first century), Marble

Of course, there is more than a hint of mortal sadness in the tale anyway. We mortals have a name for when the gods snatch away our favorite people and carry them off up to dwell in cloudtop palaces forever. Maybe this is why the Ganymede theme appears again and again in Roman sarcophagi and funerary art.

Here is an example which was carried off by the English at the height of their Empire and placed in the British Museum!

I have been deeply dissatisfied by contemporary events…so much so that I am going to look away from our time and gaze back through classical antiquity to the Peloponnesian War…but bear with me. Some say there are lessons in history which pertain to current world. The definitive story of the Peloponnesian War is told by Thucydides, an Athenian general who took part in the proceedings and had the grace to explain why he wrote his history (and what he thought his biases were). Thucydides’ great work is arguably the first real work of history but it is also the first great work of political science. The way that leaders manipulated people and events and news turned out to have strange consequences that the protagonists did not foresee (but, in hindsight, clearly should have).
The war is the story of a fading power being supplanted by a rival. The fading power, Athens, had unrivaled naval supremacy, but the upstart power, Sparta, had an enormous ever-victorious army. Athens had a league of close allies, the Delian league who supported them and were a great source of their strength (a fact not always appreciated by the proud Athenians). Many American theorists of the Cold War found these principal characters disturbingly familiar—a broad-minded yet imperialistic democracy versus an autocracy where all aspects of life were controlled by the state. Even the style of the nations seemed familiar—a nation based on wealth and trade and webs of friendship (and superior naval technology and prowess) versus a thuggish nation which ham-fistedly squashed its rivals into submission and dominated the battlefield through numbers and pure aggression.

Enough backstory. Let’s get to the central point. At the moral heart of the book is the story of the Siege of Melos.
Melos (which should be familiar to sculpture fans as the discovery place of the Venus de Milo) was a small yet prosperous island originally colonized by Dorian people, who shared cultural heritage with the Spartans. Despite this cultural background, the Melians remained neutral in the war, until one day the Athenians showed up demanding punitive monetary tribute and other concessions. The Melians argued that they were neutral and Athens was in the wrong. Surely the Spartans (or perhaps the gods) would come to the rescue of Melos if the Athenians abused their military supremacy for a very slight monetary/strategic gain. The Athenians, who had lost some of their famed thoughtfulness through the exigencies of war and political struggle responded by laying siege to Melos. When starvation forced the little city state to surrender, the Athenians executed all of the adult men and took the Melian women and children as slaves. Afterwards, the island was repopulated entirely by Athenian colonists.

This…lapse…shocked the people of Athens (Euripides’ agonizing “Trojan Women” which came out shortly afterwards is a story of the writer’s own time clothed in a story about a bygone age). The brazen, terrible behavior also shocked the allies of Athens. Perhaps that was actually the point: to remind recalcitrant allies that the Athenians were strong enough to be brutal and act for naked self-interest.
But, despite the ostentatious show of naked power, the conquest of Melos did not help Athens very much. In a world where Athens and Sparta seemed increasingly alike, the old alliances broke apart. Also, Athens was not as good at autocracy or thuggery as the Spartans (who, by the way, DID show up to avenge Melos and kill off all of the Athenian colonists). Back in Attica, things got worse and worse. The story of the first great democracy became an increasingly dark tale of venal & selfish leaders—demagogues—who were replaced willy-nilly by the fickle mob. Factions fought each other more vehemently than they fought the Spartans.

When Russia China…uh, I mean Sparta! finally won the war it behaved with much greater leniency and restraint than the Athenians showed the Melians. The Spartans installed a crooked counsel of oligarchs (self-interested puppets who had maybe been pushing Spartan interests there at the end). The Greek golden age was over.
Political scientists tend to think the Melian story illustrates the principal of “might makes right” (I left out the famous back-and-forth dialogue, which you should definitely read about on your own). Yet perhaps there are larger lessons to the larger story.

Thoughtful citizens might extrapolate that a nation is only as powerful as its allies and its leaders of the moment…and friendship and admiration can be easily squandered for very little gain. Throughout secondary school I was always taught that democracy is clearly superior in every way to every other system. Thucydides’ history reminds us that there are dark perils inherent within the very nature of group rule. Our classically minded founders knew this story and thought about it a great deal. It is unclear whether today’s legislators (or citizens) have given as much heed to the lessons of how Athens abandoned its principles and treated its friends like underlings and split into antagonistic factions and was swiftly broken to bits like a vase bumped off a plinth.


The other day I rashly promised a post about Juno—or I will call her “Hera” since the Greeks invented her (?) and their name is more euphonic. Immediately though it became obvious that writing about the queen of the gods is not as simple as it seems.  Hera plays the villain in many myths—particularly those of Heracles (indeed, her name is his name: Heracles means “Hera’s man”).  She is a great and terrible antagonist–even more so than giant sentient animals, or super dragons, or the dark monstrous deities of the underworld.  But why is that? How can a regal woman be so much worse than the gods of charnel darkness and stygian torture?


The Goddess Juno in the House of Dreams (Luis Lopez Piquer ca. early nineteenth century, oil on canvas)

Hera is the eldest daughter of Rhea and Cronus. She was devoured by her father at infancy, but escaped (via mustard emetic) and joined her brothers and sisters fighting against the titans for world domination.  Once the battle was won, she initially rebuffed the romantic overtures of her youngest and strongest brother, Zeus.  The king of the gods then took the form of a bedraggled cuckoo and cunningly played upon her sympathy for small injured creatures in order to win her heart and her hand.  After their marriage, however, Hera played the cuckoo in their relationship as Zeus dallied with goddesses, nymphs, and comely mortals of all sorts.  Classical mythology is pervaded by a sense that Zeus, king of the gods and lord of creation who fears nothing (except for being replaced by a strong son) is extremely afraid of Hera.  She is often portrayed as jealously lashing out at Zeus’ paramours and their offspring…or otherwise punishing those who act against her will or fail to pay her sufficient respect.


Juno Discovering Jupiter with Io (Pieter Lastman, 1618, oil on canvas)

Hera’s animals are the lion, the cow, and the peacock (she put the hundred eyes of her dead servant Argus on the bird’s tail to give it even greater beauty).  Her emblems are the throne, the chariot, the scepter, and the crown.  She is sometimes portrayed wearing a strange cylindrical crown of archaic pre-Greek shape (which may indicate that she was a goddess of power borrowed from a pre-Greek society).


Hera tends to be portrayed as a rich powerful woman of a higher class who barely deigns to notice her inferiors.  She is the goddess of women, marriage, wealth, success, and (above all) power.  Her children are Ares, Hephaestus, Eileithyia (the goddess of childbirth), cruel Eris, and beautiful Hebe, the goddess of youth who married Hercules after his apotheosis.

Have you read “The Three Musketeers”? After spending the entire book struggling against the machinations of Cardinal Richelieu, the hero prevails and join forces with…Cardinal Richelieu. Power is like that, and so is Hera. She can’t effectively be fought against.  The world is hers.  She can only be appeased or beguiled… or served outright.


The way upwards is not through deeds of merit, or valorous acts, or fighting monsters—it is through political wiles, networking, and figuring out how to please extremely rich powerful people who are impossible to please and implacably oppose regarding you as any sort of equal.




This is the year of the monkey! Way back during the Chinese New Year, I promised to celebrate the primates—that intelligent and nimble (and malicious) order of mammals.  Since then, primates have made the news (literally, since it is our invention), but where have the posts been?


(the malefactor crouched on an electric thingy)

Well yesterday, June 7th 2016, a vervet monkey (Chlorocebus pygerythrus) fell onto a power transformer at the Gitaru hydroelectric power station in Kenya.  The transformer tripped off, which led to a cascading sequence of generators shutting down–which, by some dark magic of electric grids, caused a nation-wide blackout.  Kenya, a nation of 44 million souls was without electricity for fifteen minutes (and the juice was out much longer near the epicenter of the problem).  A monkey turned off the world’s 31st most populous nation for a quarter of an hour!  The malefactor survived this mayhem and has been taken into custody by Kenya wildlife services—no news on what sort of community service they have planned for the mischievous creature.\


The vervet monkey is a generalist vegetarian which eats fruit, berries, grains, flowers, seeds, and vegetables (in addition to eggs and small animals when they are available).  Adult vervets weigh between 3.5 and 8 kilograms (7.7 and 17.7 pounds).  They have a long tail which is not prehensile and grizzled dun and gray coats which fade to white collars around their black faces.  That description makes them sound somewhat monochromatic, however they are among the most brilliantly colored primates…in certain respects: adult males have magnificent turquoise scrotums and vivid incarnadine genitalia.  Speaking of procreation, vervet monkeys give birth to a single infant which can live up to 24 years (in captivity).

Vervet10 (1)

Vervet monkeys are trapped as pets, poisoned as pests, and hunted for meat by humans, even though primatologists (and anthropologists) have noted profound social similarities between our species.  Vervet monkeys are capable of complex communication (including self-serving lies) and they build complicated webs of alliances and enmities.  The Wikipedia page says they are also one of the few animals capable of spite (which suggests that Wikipedia has limited experience of living creatures), however it would go a long way towards explaining yesterday’s events in Kenya.


Masters of Purest Spite?

A Map of the Kingdom of Oudh

A Map of the Kingdom of Oudh

The region which was once Oudh is a fertile portion of Northern India located in the contemporary province of Uttar Pradesh. The name is an anglicisation of the name “Awadh” which in turn is derived from the older name “Ayodhya,” the quasi-mythical capital city of Lord Rama (eponymous hero of the Ramayana).   During the age of the Mughals, Awadh was an important province run by different Nawabs (governors) on behalf of the Mughal emperor. In the 18th century, the authority of the Mughals waned and the position of Nawab became a hereditary feudal one.  The Nawabs of Awadh were a Persian Shia Muslim dynasty from Nishapur and they were renowned for their wealth and culture, however their (real) power was short-lived. In the latter half of the 18th century, the East India Company manipulated Oudh into serving as a buffer state against the Mughals and a de-facto treasury for their projects and adventures in northern India.

Portrait of Ghazi-ud-din Haidar, King of Oudh (Robert Home, ca. 1819, oil on canvas)

Portrait of Ghazi-ud-din Haidar, King of Oudh (Robert Home, ca. 1819, oil on canvas)

In 1819 the East India Company granted the Nawabs of Oudh permission to rule as independent kings. Anyone interested in power should immediately be able to spot the problem with that sentence: real authority was in the hands of the East India Company. However the delighted new king had a royal crown created for himself (designed by a British artist, Robert Home who painted portraits in the various courts of India). Here then is the crown of Oudh. Although it was a real object made of actual gold and jewels (unlike say, the Dutch crown, made of foil and fish paste) the crown of Oudh was a British stage prop meant to further disconnect Oudh from the last of the Mughals. By 1856, these theatrical machinations became too much for the British, and they dispensed with the Nawabs in order to rule the region directly.  Yet the stagecraft of politics are a funny business—by annexing Oudh outright instead of running it through decadent puppet kings, the British precipitated the Indian Rebellion of 1857 (A.K.A. the First Indian War of Independence).



Many people complain that the news is all bad.  That is not true at all, but good news is sometimes harder to quantify or follow than bad tidings—plus human progress tends to be incremental.  I bring this up because this week did feature a good news story—and Ferrebeekeeper has been following along (as best we can) for years. The nuclear scientists at the National Ignition Facility (a part of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory) have been attempting to use a vast laser array to heat/compress a deuterium and tritium fuel pellet to the extreme conditions necessary for nuclear fusion.

The container for the nuclear fuel

The container for the nuclear fuel

Nuclear fusion involves compressing/heating the elementary particles which make up atoms until the atoms fuse into new atoms.  Such a process releases outrageous amounts of energy but it does not start easily–indeed so much energy is required to begin the reaction that “hot” fusion typically requires a star or a nuclear fission detonator.  These items are dangerous and alarming to have lying around so scientists have been attempting to find a more controlled method of fusing atoms together.

The NIF Target Chamber

The NIF Target Chamber

Earlier this week the science journal Nature published a paper which details how NIF scientists finally managed to produce more energy than was initially put into the fuel pellet (albeit not into the overall system).  This does not sound overwhelmingly exciting—yet it is farther than nuclear engineers have got in 50 years.  To quote the amazingly named head scientist, Omar Hurricane, “We’ve assembled that stick of dynamite and we’ve gotten the fuse to light…If we can get that fuse to burn all the way to the dynamite, it’s going to pack a wallop.”

Just dream what we could accomplish with such energy!

Just dream what we could accomplish with such energy!

Abundant safe energy from nuclear fusion would be an astonishingly transformative innovation for humankind.  Immediately our principle economic and environmental problems would be forever altered.  Additionally having such a cosmic wellspring of energy available would allow us to embark on engineering works of a vastly greater scale than any known so far.

Planetary Engineering!

Planetary Engineering!

In ancient Greece, one of the most universally popular symbols was the gorgoneion, a symbolized head of a repulsive female figure with snakes for hair.  Gorgoneion medallions and ornaments have been discovered from as far back as the 8th century BC (and some archaeologists even assert that the design dates back to 15 century Minoan Crete).  The earliest Greek gorgoneions seem to have been apotropaic in nature—grotesque faces meant to ward off evil and malign influence.  Homer makes several references to the gorgon’s head (in fact he only writes about the severed head—never about the whole gorgon).  My favorite lines concerning the gruesome visage appear in the Odyssey, when Odysseus becomes overwhelmed by the horrors of the underworld and flees back to the world of life:

And I should have seen still other of them that are gone before, whom I would fain have seen- Theseus and Pirithous glorious children of the gods, but so many thousands of ghosts came round me and uttered such appalling cries, that I was panic stricken lest Proserpine should send up from the house of Hades the head of that awful monster Gorgon.

In Greco-Roman mythology the gorgon’s head (attached to a gorgon or not) could turn those looking at it into stone.  The story of Perseus and Medusa (which we’ll cover in a different post) explains the gorgon’s origins and relates the circumstances of her beheading.  When Perseus had won the princess, he presented the head to his father and Athena as a gift—thus the gorgon’s head was a symbol of divine magical power. Both Zeus and Athena were frequently portrayed wearing the ghastly head on their breastplates.

Ancient Electrum belt buckle in the form of a gorgoneion

A Gorgoneion decoration on an Attic ceramic vessel from approximately 490 BC

Although the motif began in Greece, it spread with Hellenic culture.  Gorgon imagery was found on temples, clothing, statues, dishes, weapons, armor, and coins found across the Mediterranean region from Etruscan Italy all the way to the Black Sea coast. As Hellenic culture was subsumed by Rome, the image became even more popular–although the gorgon’s visage gradually changed into a more lovely shape as classical antiquity wore on.

Hellenic Gorgoneion ornament

Gorgoneion from the House of Mosaics in Eretria (4th c. B.C.)

Roman Gorgon Mosaic from the first century AD

In wealthy Roman households a gorgoneion was usually depicted next to the threshold to help guard the house against evil.  The wild snake-wreathed faces are frequently found painted as murals or built into floors as mosaics.

Gorgoneion mosaic found in Pompeii's House of the Centenary

Not only was the wild magical head a mainstay of classical decoration–the motif was subsequently adapted by Renaissance artists hoping to recapture the spirit of the classical world.  Gilded gorgoneions appeared at Versailles and in the palaces and mansions of elite European aristocrats of the 17th and 18th centuries.

Rodela de la Medusa de Carlos V (Filippo y Francesco Negroli, Milán, 1541)

Carved Gorgon's head at Versailles

Gorgoneion (Thomas Regnaudin, ca. 1660, Carved wood)

Even contemporary designers and businesses make use of the image.  The symbol of the Versace fashion house is a gorgon’s head.

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July 2022