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Back when I first moved to New York, I didn’t know how to cook very well, so my roommates and I ended up ordering out almost every night.  The profusion of infinite restaurants featuring delicious cuisine from everywhere in the world seemed like one of the city’s great features back then.  My favorite sort of take-out cuisine is Chinese, so we would order Chinese from New Panda Garden or Szechuan Delight at least once a week (and sometimes more).

Then one day, my roommate came back with a menu for a new place: Uncle Liao.  We had immense fun saying the name (which you should try) and we started ordering their sour pork cabbage delight—which was magically delightful. Coincidentally, according to a Chinese-speaking friend, “Liao” means “old” in Chinese—so their name was something like “Uncle Old” or maybe “Venerable Courtesy Relative.”  We ordered Uncle Liao all the time and poor Panda Garden closed (and Szechuan Delight was relegated only for the occasions when we had to have sweet and sour chicken, which they did really well).  But then a funny thing happened: the novelty faded from Uncle Liao and the food stopped seeming so delicious.  After a while my roommate picked up a “Red Hot” menu and soon Uncle Liao dropped out of the rotation.

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It is possible, of course, that their food became less good over time (indeed the internet tells me they closed a decade ago for gross health code violations), however I believe the whole cycle was illustrative of the human need for novelty.  After a while the most delicious food loses its special savor, and the most gorgeous ornaments look stale next to newer baubles.  We have an insatiable appetite for novelty–and it is this taste (not the need for sour pork-cabbage delight) which drives more of human activity and purpose than I ever would have credited.  Lately I see Uncle Liao scenarios everywhere: in media, in politics, in relationships, especially in the arts (which are afflicted by a real weakness for novelty even if the new work is stupid or inane)…yet even science and academia are prone to the “good because it is new” phenomenon.  I suppose this itself is good, since it drives change and innovation, but it is alarming too…our collective hunger which can never be sated which draws us to new things even if they are stupid or tasteless (or kind of too salty with too much MSG).   I don’t propose not trying new things (far from it), but we should be aware that they tend to overperform on the curve and most of them are destined for the back of the folder…or the landfill…or the “CLOSED” tab on the menu finder.

Back to a simpler time! (art by treechangedolls)

Back to a simpler time! (art by treechangedolls)

On Facebook, one of my friends linked to an article about an artist who repaints the garishly make-up faces of contemporary dolls back into the innocent countenances of normal children.  The results are quite charming: you can see the dramatic difference here on the Tree Change Dolls Tumblr.  It is a very lovely art project and one almost wishes somebody would grab some of our overexposed overpainted reality TV stars & celebrities in order to do the same thing.

Yasmin from "Bratz Babyz"

Yasmin from “Bratz Babyz”

The post made me think back to my time as a toymaker, and the dark lessons of marketing.  Like little moths to a meretricious flame, children are drawn in by things that they think of as being adult (which is why Barbie has had such a glorious run).  Toymakers (toymakers who make money—so not me!) know this and exploit it.  What ends up happening then is a sort of arms race where manufacturers try to create toys which are shinier, curvier, brighter, and more artfully stylized.   Designers who are lazy and manipulative also try to incorporate adult-seeming things like make-up, coquettish fashion, and cell phones.  This can result in atrocities like the “Bratz” (a line of child figurines which look like they have been turned out by a human trafficker), but it has strange results when applied over time to more conventional toys.

"My Little Pony" (circa 1980s)

“My Little Pony” (circa 1980s)

The same friend who linked to the “Tree Change Dolls” once brought out her old 80s “My Little Pony” toys in order to compare them with the reboots being sold to her daughter.  Naturally the 80s ponies were already heavily stylized with big soulful human eyes, bell-bottom legs, and bright pink bodies, but they at least had pudgy/stocky bodies, equine faces, and a sort of childishness to them. The next generation of “My Little Pony” toys (which you can buy in a big box store right now) had somehow evolved pixie faces which an unknowing viewer would be hard-pressed to think of as horse-like.  They had slender humanized bodies which made it look like they were working out in a Hollywood gym.  The mane–which was already luxurious in the original toy–had grown beyond all measure into an entity bigger than the horse!

"My Little Pony" (circa present)

“My Little Pony” (circa present)

Something about this reminds me of birds of paradise or Irish elk.  These animals compete(d) for attention by means of more and more elaborate display features (for the Irish elk it was gigantic antlers, for the birds it was increasingly gaudy feathers).   It all works as long as the environment stays the same and there are no new predators, but if something changes, the exaggerated and affected appearance of these magnificent lifeforms can spell their doom (just ask the elk).

"How are those gigantic antlers working out for you there, buddy?"

“How are those gigantic antlers working out for you there, buddy?”

I am not Cato the Censor here to say that Irish elk, birds of paradise and showy imp ponies are bad (although I am saying that about Bratz—those things are nightmares).  I am however saying that we are collectively making marketers (and other tastemakers…and even political leaders) act certain ways because of choices we don’t even know we are collectively making.  I am highlighting this in toys because I used to make toys (and because they provide an extremely good example of marketing shenanigans), but the same trends are true across all sorts of disciplines and even in broader political, aesthetic, and philosophical realms.

...or maybe it all really IS a result of Hellenization, just like Cato says...

…or maybe it all really IS a result of Hellenization, just like Cato says…

Synodontis schoutedeni catfish (Credit: Oliver Drescher)

So what’s so amazing about catfish?  So far, Ferrebeekeeper has describing all sorts of different variations of these fascinating fish. From the giant truck-sized catfish of the Mekong, to the infinitesimal (yet horrifying) candirus of the Amazon, to the deadly poisonous schooling catfish of coral reefs, to catfish that live underground or in gardens, we have seen a seemingly impossible variety of the irrepressible whiskered creatures. But, aside from their variety, hardiness, and interesting appearance, catfish represent an extraordinary apogee in sensory ability.  They are able to apprehend their watery realms in ways that might as well be supernatural or alien to us.  Catfish have honed familiar senses—taste, smell, touch, hearing, and sight–to outrageous extremes. Yet they have additional senses—electroreceptivity, pressure sensitivity, and possibly other senses–that we are only starting to understand.

Channel catfish, Ictalurus punctatus

Let’s start with catfish’s sense of taste: catfish, unlike us, are not limited to tasting things with their tongues.  Their entire bodies are covered with taste buds.  To quote catfish expert Dr. John Caprio of Louisiana State University, “Catfish are swimming tongues…You can’t touch any place on a catfish without touching thousands of taste buds. To use an analogy, it’s as if the tip of your tongue grew out and covered your body.”  Catfish can literally taste the water all around their bodies and the mud they are swimming over.

Red-tailed Catfish, Phractocephalus hemioliopterus (Photo by Chad Cullen)

Beyond their powers of taste, catfish have a bloodhound-like sense of smell. With astonishingly sensitive olfactory pits near their nostrils, Catfish can smell certain compounds at one part per 10 billion parts of water. The sense of smell does not merely help them while hunting and seeking food, catfish use smell to identify other individual catfish and to maintain a social hierarchy.  A catfish has an elaborate picture of its watery realm, the denizens thereof, and of the history and interaction of these inhabitants based on smell.

Catfish Barbels

Catfish’s scale-free skin is unusually sensitive to touch but that is not the end of catfish’s ability to feel what is going on around it.  The most distinctive feature of catfish—their 8 barbels (whiskers) are literally organs for touching.  Like a blind man’s cane, each of these barbels can touch the substrate or whatever is moving in front of the catfish.  Not only are the barbels covered with taste buds and feeling nerves, the whiskers also vibrate with water disturbance and provide a sense almost like hearing—although catfish also have multiple hearing organs.

Black Bullhead Catfish (notice the prominent lateral line)

Vibrations travel well under water and most fish have excellent abilities to sense sound, but catfish have evolved some additional auditory features.  The swim bladder of a catfish (which the fish uses like a submarine ballast in order to rise and fall through the water column) is connected by a series of small bones (the Weberian apparatus) to the hearing apparatus (otoliths) inside the head. Catfish are therefore able to hear sounds of a higher frequency than other freshwater fish.  Catfish can also sense extremely low-frequency sounds thanks to a different hearing system—a series of small pores running along the fish’s lateral lines. Within the pores are infinitesimal hair-like sensing apparatuses which respond to the slightest water displacement. Using lateral line hearing, a Catfish can sense animals scuttling across the rocks on the bottom of a river, predators swimming above them, and even fishermen walking on the shore. Perhaps most remarkably, the low frequency sensors which catfish have in their lateral lines seem to give the fish the ability to detect seismic activity.  The Chinese and Japanese are said to have used the creatures as advanced earthquake detectors (which probably gave rise to the myth of Namazu, the Japanese earthquake catfish).

Although some catfish have small or underdeveloped eyes, the majority of catfish species can see extremely well. Additionally catfish possess a tapetum lucidum—a layer of reflective tissue at the back of the eyes which allows them to see keenly in low-light conditions (cat owners will recognize the tapetum lucidum as the flashing green glow of feline eyes).

Catfish in an Aquarium (further documentation required)

Finally catfish can sense the electrical discharges within the nervous and electrical-muscular systems of living things (in fact the electrical catfish goes a step beyond and uses electricity for hunting and self-defense).  The cells responsible for electroreception are found grouped together in tiny pits along the catfish’s head and along its lateral line.  Although electroreception has limited range, it is a powerful sense which can allow the fish to sense animals hidden beneath the mud or otherwise camouflaged.

A catfish’s life must be exciting—awash as they are in complicated overlaying sensory perceptions.  Their abilities to perceive the world have taken them farther than other fish. According to the Tree of Life web project:

Catfishes are a species rich and exceptionally diverse group of fishes ranking second or third among orders of vertebrates. The Catalog of Fishes (Eschmeyer, 1998 et seq.) database treats 2,855 species of catfishes as valid. About 1 in 4 valid species of freshwater fishes, 1 in 10 fishes, and 1 in 20 vertebrates, is a catfish.

Several hundred more species of catfish have been discovered since the above paragraph was written.  Paleontologists have even discovered fossils of catfish on Antarctica (the only continent where they can not currently be found living). Catfish are basically sentient sense-organs.  They have diversified and thrived by being able to discern what is going on in the world around them (and they have probably enjoyed the experience).

Ancistrus Bristelnose Catfish

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