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Thanks so much for your patience while I was working on my art show last week! My first New York solo show was a rousing success (even if it only lasted for a single night). Numerous friends, patrons,and even some strangers showed up to check out the 100 flounder pictures in their fancy Manhattan setting. The fish market was a success as well: far fewer flatfish are back on my walls (and if you reserved a flounder, I am holding it safe in a special secure undisclosed location so it stays fresh until you pick it up). Special thanks to all attendees and well-wishers! I only wish I had had more time to talk about art and the affairs of the world with each of you. Additionally, I really appreciate the emotional support from my readers who couldn’t make it to the Lower East Side. Particular thanks are due to my long-time supporters, Neomys Sapiens, Calender Girl, and above all Mom, who always gets pride of place in any thank you speech! Indeed, thanks to both of my parents for their inxhaustible patience and fortitude. Thanks too to Catinca Tabacaru Gallery for providing a space to grow and experiment (I promised not to use their branding on any promotional materials, but they really helped me out, and their lovely gallery deserves a visit next time you are in the City). My amazing new roommate Stephen Clarke provided this opportunity and did an astonishing job hanging 100 pictures so they look beautiful in a couple of short hours.
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Now I have to figure out how and where to throw the next show. Keep your eyes peeled for art galleries that seem to have a penchant for surrealism, historical tableau, themes of ecology and symbiosis, or fish in general. Here are some images of the show to tide us over till the next time.
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Speaking of moving forwards, I also drew a quick sketch of the solar eclipse as visible from the East River promenade at lunch hour. I didn’t have solar eclipse glasses and didn’t want to stare at the sun too much (also I had to get back to the office), but I think this quick sketch of the partial eclipse is mostly accurate. Hopefully I will have another art show before there is another solar eclipse! I hope to see you at the next shindig, and thanks again!

Partial Eclipse Flounder

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From the 1830s through the late 1850s, the capital of winemaking in the United States was Ohio. Nicholas Longworth of Cincinnati successfully planted great vineyards of Catawba grapes along the Ohio River. He had moderate success making sweet white wines but his greatest success came after he accidentally produced a sweet sparkling wine which oenophiles of the day likened to French champagne. The sparkling wines of Ohio became briefly internationally famous and bon vivants of the East Coast, Victorian England, and continental Europe paid top dollar for what was regarded as a premium International luxury beverage. Odes to the grape were written by famous poets and the Ohio valley briefly resembled Ardennes.

american-champagne

Oh jeeze….

The Catawba grapes which were at the center of this Bacchic empire were a dark brownish pink/purple grape from the East Coast. They were said to be a hybrid of native American grapes and imported European vines, although where the distinctive grapes and the distinctive name actually came from is seemingly lost in history (which is to say it was probably all a marketing stunt by Longworth). The grapes themselves were sweet red grapes with a tendency to have a foxy flavor (which sounds like more marketing language for unpleasant muskiness). The vines grew vigorously but were subject to attack from powdery mildew. In the 1860s powdery mildew joined forces with economic devastation and dislocation of the American Civil War to crush the nascent Ohio wine industry to such a thorough extent that it sounds like I am writing about alternate universe history.

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The entire reason I bring up this boom and bust story is because it is memorialized in a very beautiful color, Catawba, a pretty organic shade of brownish pinkish purple. Now whenever you see the delightful color (which is used less than it should be), you can think of how Ohio might have become a land of rolling rivers, chateaus, monasteries, lavender fields, and fine living….

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(Call me crazy, but this kind of looks like Ohio with a beautiful medieval town in it…)

Pluto (Photo from NASA's New Horizons mission)

Pluto (Photo from NASA’s New Horizons mission)

As promised we are dedicating today’s post to the New Horizons spacecraft. The unmanned robot probe (which is the size of an unwieldy motorcycle) flew past Pluto at 7:49 a.m. EST, traveling at nearly 50,000 kilometers per hour (31,000 mph). At its nearest approach, the craft was only 1200 kilometers (7500 miles) above Pluto’s surface—closer to Pluto than Brooklyn is to Botswana.

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Because of the shape and size of the solar system, the telemetry of the mission, and the niceties of radio-communication, NASA did not receive the information dump from the spacecraft until 00:53 GMT Wednesday which is uh…approximately right now! So I haven’t had any time to groom the Pluto data! Today’s post is thus more of a laurel. But the information does exist—the craft survived and completed its mission. We have a trove of knowledge about Pluto to help scientists understand the nature of the solar system—or to conceive of what kinds of new questions to ask about other planetary systems. Maybe I’ll be desperately writing another post tomorrow if scientists unexpectedly find canals on Pluto or discover that Nyx is really a giant egg or something, but most likely this data will take a long time to process and understand. Such is the nature of science (and most worthwhile pursuits). So what is the purpose of this post?

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I have never been unduly upset about the designation “dwarf planet” for things like Pluto, Ceres, Eris, and Haumea. However I did grow up with “My very educated mother just served us nine pizzas” (a much snappier mnemonic than “My very educated mother just served us nothing”), and the idea of Pluto as the final planet still holds undeserved weight in my subconscious. I have thus been taking NASA’s self-congratulatory PR announcements seriously when they say “we complete the initial reconnaissance of the planets.” That sounds right to me. Humankind has gathered a great deal of information about the solar system. Now it is time to brainstorm some new objectives before the fickle public loses its interest and wanders off.

This graphic is old...What next?

This graphic is old…What next?

There is a national consensus that we should be spending all of our money on expensive cell phones and vastly overpriced (yet disturbingly ineffectual) medical care. The space age is reckoned to be over—and space should now be left to the likes of Elon Musk and other James Bond villain-ish mega billionaires. I think this is wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, ever so wrong. Now that we have some ideas about what is out there we should use our hard-won knowledge to do tremendous things! My favorite next step is an atmospheric mission to Venus. Let’s send some cool space blimps to sit in the high atmosphere of our sister planet and maybe launch some weird little drones and smaller balloons into the atmosphere. We could find out whether a floating colony is even feasible. Plus it would be like the Montgolfier brothers and the Wright brothers all over—on another world!

Oooh! Can we use a donut-shaped balloon?

Oooh! Can we use a donut-shaped balloon?

The idea of a human mission to Mars and a submarine mission to Europa also have great merit—but I see them as more difficult and with less practical purpose. What are your favorite ideas about what to do next? This seems like a good moment to at least talk about the direction we are headed, even as we sip champagne and dance joyously about what we have done.

"Champagne in Space" by Jshinncreative on DeviantArt

“Champagne in Space” by Jshinncreative on DeviantArt

Conifers are amazing! Also happy holidays from Ferrebeekeeper.

It is the holiday season and decorated conifers are everywhere. Seeing all of the dressed-up firs and spruces reminds me that Ferrebeekeeper’s tree category has so far betrayed a distinct bias towards angiosperms (flowering plants). Yet the conifers vastly outdate all flowering trees by a vast span of time.  The first conifers we have found date to the late Carboniferous period (about 300 million years ago) whereas the first fossils of angiosperms appear in the Cretaceous (about 125 million years ago) although the flowering plants probably originated earlier in the Mesozoic.

The first known conifer trees resembled modern Araucaria trees.  They evolved from a (now long-extinct) ancestral gymnosperm tree which could only live in warm swampy conditions—a watery habitat necessitated since these progenitor trees did not cope well with dry conditions and also probably utilized motile sperm.  Instead of relying on free-swimming gametes and huge seeds, the newly evolved conifers used wind to carry clouds of pollen through the air and were capable of producing many tiny seeds which could survive drying out.  Because the evergreen cone-bearing trees could survive in drier conditions, the early conifers had immense competitive advantages.  These advantages were critical to survival as the great warm swamps of the Carboniferous dried out.  The continents, which had been separated by shallow oceans and seas, annealed together into the baking dry supercontinent of Permian Pangaea.  In the arid deserts and mountains, the conifers were among the only plants which could survive.

Pay attention to the Trees in this Painting not the Dinosaurs (art by Jon Taylor)

This ability to live through any condition helped the conifers get through the greatest mass extinction in life’s history—The Permian–Triassic (P–Tr) extinction event, (known to paleontologists as “the Great Dying”).  Thereafter, throughout the Mesozoic they were the dominant land plants (along with cycads and ginkgos which had evolved at about the same time).  The Mesozoic saw the greatest diversity of conifers ever—the age of dinosaurs could just as well be called the age of conifers.  Huge heard of sauropods grazed on vast swaths of exotic conifers. Beneath these strange sprawling forests, the carnosaurs hunted, the early birds glided through endless green canyons, and the desperate little mammals darted out to grab and hoard the pine nuts of the time.

The Great Boreal Forests of Canada (photo by Chad Delany)

Although flowering plants rapidly came to prominence towards the end of the Cretaceous and have since become the most diverse plants, today’s conifers are not in any way anachronisms or primitive also-rans.  They still out-compete the flowering trees in cold areas and in dry areas. Conifers entirely dominate the boreal forests of Asia, Europe, and North America—arguably the largest continuous ecosystem on the planet except for the pelagic ocean.  They form entire strange ecosystems in the Araucaria moist forests of South America—which are relics of the great conifer forests of Antarctica (the southern continent was once a warmer happier place before tectonics and climate shift gradually dragged its inhabitants to frozen death).

Contemporary Araucaria Forest in South America (photo by Garth Lenz)

The largest trees—the sequoias and redwoods–are conifers.  The oldest trees—bristlecone pine trees and clonal Spruces–are conifers (excepting of course the clonal colonies).  Conifers are probably the most commercially important trees since they are fast-growing staples of the pulp and the timber industries. Timber companies sometimes buy up hardwood forests, clear cut the valuable native deciduous trees and plant fast growing pines in their place to harvest for pulp.  In fact all of the Christmas trees which are everywhere around New York come from a similar farming process.  The conifers are nearly everywhere—they have one of the greatest success stories in the history of life.  It is no wonder they are the symbol of life surviving through the winter to come back stronger.  They have done that time and time again through the darkest and driest winters of the eons.

A Grove of Giant Sequoias (Sequoiadendron giganteum)

This is the Ferrebeekeeper’s 300th post! Hooray and thank you for reading! We celebrated our 100th post with a write-up of the Afro-Caribbean love goddess, Oshun.  To celebrate the 300th post (and to finish armor week on a glorious high note), we turn our eyes upward to the stern and magnificent armored goddess, Athena, the goddess of wisdom.

Athena of Piraeus (unknown but possibly Euphranor, ca. 360 BC - ca. 340 BC, bronze cult statue)

Athena’s birth has its roots in Zeus’ war with his father Cronus.  In order to win his battle against the ruling race of Titans (and thus usurp his father’s place as the king of the gods), Zeus married the Titan Metis, goddess of cunning and prudence. Her wise counsel and crafty stratagems gave the Olympian gods and edge against the Titans and the latter were ultimately cast down.  Metis was Zeus’ first wife and the secret to his success… but there was a problem.  It was foretold that Metis would bear an extremely powerful offspring:  any son she gave birth to would be mightier than Zeus. To forestall this problem Zeus tricked Metis into transforming into a fly and then he sniffed her up his nose so that he could always have her cunning counsel inside his head. But Metis was already pregnant.  Inside Zeus’ skull she began to craft a suit of armor for her child to wear.  The pounding of her hammer within his temples gave Zeus a terrible headache. Insane with pain, Zeus begged his ally Prometheus (the seer among the Titans) to cure him of this misery through whatever means necessary.  Prometheus seized a labrys (a double headed axe from Crete) and struck open Zeus’ head with a noise louder than a thunderclap. In a burst of radiance Athena sprang forth fully grown and clad in gleaming armor.

Drawing of a Bronze relief depicting the Birth of Athena (shield band panel, 550 BCE)

Athena was Zeus’ first daughter and his favorite child. For his own armor, Zeus had carried an invincible aegis crafted out of the skin of his foster mother, the divine goat Amalthea.  When Athena was born he handed this symbol of his invincible power over to her. Similarly throughout classical mythology Athena is the only other entity whom Zeus trusts to handle his lightning bolts (there is an amazing passage in the first lines of the Aneid where she vaporizes Ajax’s chest with lightning, picks him up with a whirlwind, and impales him on a spire of rock in revenge for an impiety).  Her other symbols were the owl, a peerless predator capable of seeing at night, and the gorgon’s head, a magical talisman capable of  turning humans to stone (which Athena wore affixed to her armor). Although she was first in Zeus’ esteem, Athena did not forget her mother’s fate and she remained a virgin goddess who never dallied with romance of any sort.

Pallas Athena (Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, ca. 1655)

Wisdom, humankind’s greatest (maybe our only) strength was Athena’s bailiwick as too were the fruits of wisdom. Athena was therefore the goddess of learning, strategy, productive arts, cities, skill, justice, victory, and civilization.  She is often portrayed as the goddess of justified war in opposition to her half-brother Ares, the vainglorious deity representative of the senseless aspects of war.  In classical mythology Athena never loses.  Her side is always victorious.  Her heroes always prosper. She was the Greek representation of the triumph of creativity and intellect.

The Combat of Mars and Minerva (Jacques Louis David, 1771)

Metis never bore Zeus a son to usurp him–but when I read classical mythology such an outcome always seemed unnecessary.  Not only did Athena wield Zeus’ authority and run the world as she saw fit, but Zeus was perfectly happy with the arrangement (a true testament to her wisdom).  The one slight to the grey eyed goddess is that she does not have a planet named after her (nor after her Roman name Minerva), however I have always thought that astronomers have been secretly saving the name. We can use it when we find a planet inhabited by beings of greater intelligence, or when we travel the stars to a second earth and apotheosize into true Athenians.

Athena of Piraeus (detail)

Goodbye old friend...

The space shuttle program ended this morning when the Atlantis lander touched down at 5:57 AM Eastern Standard Time at the Cape Canaveral spaceport. The national and international media has elegiacally noted the end of the 30 year program, most commonly with articles which sound a dirge-like note concerning the final end of the manned space program (with undertones of America’s decline as a spacefaring, scientific, and military power as well). I am glad those articles are out there because I feel that our inability to ensure adequate funding for basic blue sky research has put the nation’s economic future in jeopardy. Since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, national greatness has come not from abundant natural resources or a large hard-working population (although the United States has both of those things) but from innovation after innovation.  To quote Representative Frank Wolf, a member of the NASA appropriations committee,“If we cut NASA, if we cut cancer research, we’re eating our seed corn.”

We are all the turkey...

However, I am concerned that the story is becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy of defeat and it shouldn’t be.  Despite its ever shrinking budget, NASA is actually doing a great deal in space right now as, to a lesser degree, are the world’s other space programs. Five days ago NASA the spacecraft Dawn went into orbit around the protoplanet Vesta, the second largest object in the asteroid belt.  Next July Dawn will power up its ion thrusters and fly to the dwarf planet Ceres, an enigmatic pseudo-planet which seems to harbor secrets of the solar system’s beginning under its oceans.  Dawn is only one of ten planetary missions currently in orbit (or, indeed onworld) across the rest of the solar system. These are MESSENGER, Venus Express, Chang’E 2, Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, Mars Odyssey, Mars Express, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, the Mars rover Opportunity, Dawn, and Cassini.  Additionally the following eight spacecraft are currently in flight: New Horizons is headed for the dwarf planet Pluto, Rosetta is currently flying to the comet Churymov-Gerasimenko, Japan’s Akatsuki and IKAROS are both in solar orbit, the spacecrafts Deep Impact and ICE, are awaiting further instructions, and finally Voyager 1 and 2 are still out there exploring the distant edge of the solar system.  I picked out the projects involving NASA in green (I have already written about the Japanese solar sail Ikaros and our Mercury mission so check out my hyperlinks).  These are just the far traveling missions–there are also dozens of near-Earth spacecraft studying the sun, the stars, deep space, and, most of all, the earth.

NASA Spacecraft Dawn firing its ion thrusters with Vesta and Ceres in the Backgound

The shuttle program is not quite as dead as it seems, the Air Force still has two small robot space shuttles and DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency which spawned all manner of world changing technology) is working on next generation spaceplanes.  A single-stage-to-orbit space plane (which takes off and lands like a normal plane) is still far off, but aerospace engineers seem confident they could build a two-stage-to-orbit crewed space plane around scramjet technology.

Artist's Concept of a Scramjet Spaceplane Entering Orbit

I’m going to miss the shuttles—the white behemoths were major features of my childhood. Back in the early eighties they seemed to hold out all sorts of promises for a glorious future in space. But childhood comes to an end and the shuttles really never lived up to expectations.  Now as we Americans sit grounded (unless we want to pay the Russians 50+ million dollars for a seat on one of their old Soyuz spacecrafts), it is time to think about what we want.  Maybe humankind will catch a break and see breakthroughs in molecular or nuclear engineering which leave us with a new range of materials and energy possibilities (despite its long quiet phase, I still have high hopes for the National Ignition Facility).  I have always harbored fantasies of a nuclear power plant on the moon with an attached rail gun for space launches.  I also like the idea of a space elevator, or a twirling toroid space habitat with false gravity.  The always deferred Mars mission is exciting too (although we have talked about it so long that some of its glitter has come off).  But I’m open to other ideas.  We all should be. We need to talk about it and then we need to decide on some ideas and fund them quickly. Seeds need to be planted to grow.

If we call it an orbital railgun, people will be upset. How about "orbital railfriend"?

The stories of the Crommyonian sow and the Caledonian Boar have made me reflect on what intense life-forms pigs are.  I admire pigs–and not just because I love to eat them.  Uncooked and on the hoof, the pig is amazing…and also alarming. The familiar Eurasian swine has two manifestations: domesticated (Sus scrofa domestica) and wild (Sus scrofa).  The former is big and pink and tailor crafted by human to be easily controlled and scrumptious on the table.  However, domestic pigs keep the smarts of their wild kin.  They are the cleverest creature in the barnyard except for the farmer (usually) and that’s saying something considering how cunning goats are. Thanks to their intelligence and their strength, farm pigs sometimes get away from us. Within only a few generations, domestic pigs return to their wild type—bristly, furtive, and angry.  There are feral pigs just about everywhere humankind has been except for the frigid polar regions.  The creatures spread across the entire Pacific Ocean on the canoes of intrepid sea-farers and on isolated islands they have sometimes outlasted their hearty tenders: even in the modern world there are islands with pigs but no humans.

Domestic Pig

As invaders, feral pigs are immensely successful.  They flourish in Australia, North and South America, Asia, Africa, and on innumerable islands.  Swine are omnivorous grazers.  Their tremendous sense of smell, along with their strength, smarts, and speed, allows them to run roughshod over unprepared ecosystems.

Pigs are fecund, breeding quickly and having large litters.  As social animals, pigs communicate via grunts, squeals, and snuffles.  A “sounder” of wild pigs is therefore quite adept at avoiding predators and capitalizing food resources.  Such groups of wild pigs are controlled by one or two big dominant sows (males are either solitary or form small bachelor groups).  Woe upon anyone who backs a wild or feral pig into a corner.  The animals have substantial mass, a low center of gravity, powerful tusks, and a bellicose desire not to be eaten.  Even domestic pigs can be dangerous.  To quote Wikipedia, “pigs can be aggressive and pig-induced injuries are relatively common in areas where pigs are reared or where they form part of the wild or feral fauna.”

So never ever do this with feral pigs you don't know well!

There are well-known taboos against eating pigs in many cultures and religions. Some groups feel they are dirty–and indeed swine are strangely similar to people and can bring a host of pathogens and parasites to someone who handles pork carelessly or lives to close to a pigsty. These similarities have also given pigs a large role as laboratory animals, and when we get easily replaceable artificial organs they may come from transgenic pigs (the super intelligent “pigoons” from Atwood’s Oryx & Crake were among the scarier creatures of contemporary science fiction). Brushing those ideas aside, modern agriculture has excelled at producing safe pork. Nearly 100 million tons of pork was consumed worldwide in 2009 (over half of this by people in China).

That’s a lot of pig butchering!  But to reiterate the point of this post, being delicious has brought success to the pig.  There are over 2 billion pigs worldwide, making the animal one of the most successful large mammals on the planet.  Pigs can get away from our farms and go feral.  It’s a rare occurrence, but it happens often enough that there will always be wild pigs as long as there are people. No matter how many pigs we eat, they will always be successful organisms maintaining a massive cloven footprint on the earth.

A pig (Sus scrofa domestica) swimming in the Bahamas. (Photography by Eric Cheng)

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