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Happy Fourth of July!  The United States of America turns 242 years old this year (2018).  People always talk about how new our nation is, but 242 is pretty venerable by any reasonable standard.  When the founding fathers declared independence, France was under the Ancien Régime, China was ruled by the sixth emperor of the Qing Dynasty, and the Ottoman Sultanate was a great world power.  Russia was expanding under the enlightened reign of…Catherine the Great!  The nascent United States had the idealistic strength of purpose to break from the forms of monarchy and autocracy which held sway around the world and to revisit the ancient, dangerous ideal of democracy–rule by the people for the people (although, admittedly, it was a pretty limited and flawed democracy in those early days…and maybe in these days too).  Democracies have always turned upon themselves and blown apart, so the founders were brave/brash to mint a new one in the era of absolutism, but it succeeded beyond their wildest dreams (except maybe for Alexander Hamilton…that guy was a maniac).

I love my country for its dangerous democracy and vibrant idealism, although weighing everyone’s opinions and forging them into a consensus can sometimes be a slow and painful process.   I also love America’s enlightened rule of law, its technological savvy, and, above all, its diverse population of people from all sorts of different backgrounds united by shared ideals.  Lately though, we have reached a sort of crossroads where the population is fundamentally at odds over two different divergent views of America’s strength, ideals, and purpose.  For the present, we are the Divided States of America: a recherche red nation of obedience, hierarchy, bravery, loyalty, & honor; and a libertine blue nation of shifting identities and ideas, ceaseless change, and unnerving new possibilities. Until one nation gains political ascendancy so overwhelming that the other side acknowledges it, the whole nation stumbles along deadlocked, incapacitated, and unable to adapt to a world where our adversaries and competitors are refining seductive new forms of autocracy (and goodness knows what else).

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After World War II, the world lay in shattered ruins.  The United States was at an apogee of power, victory and success.  Yet America rebuilt our adversaries in the belief that prosperous powerful, happy nations would be better allies and would become amazing friends.  We chose to remake the world not only with our vast power (not that we have been altogether reticent about wielding that double-edged sword) but with concepts, contracts, commerce, and compassion.  Germany, Japan, and Italy are our dearest friends—esteemed equals in the great work of civilization and progress. The Pax Americana has not been a perfect success, but it has been very good to the world and very good to us.  Turning our back on the world we built (and all of the advantages we built into the system for ourselves and our point of view) is rank folly.  When we had everything and were the only super power, we failed to reach out to the former Soviet Union with the same big-hearted elan…and look where that got us.

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We have made terrible mistakes in the past and we are making a lot of new ones lately (and revisiting some of the golden oldies which have plagued us and destroyed other great nations).  Everyone talks about the “shattering of norms” (which makes me think of the drunken everyman from “Cheers” falling from his barstool and exploding into shards like peanut brittle).   Reforms are inevitable and necessary if a nation wishes to stay dynamic and powerful.  Some norms will have to be shattered so that these much-needed reforms can take place.  The dance of reaction versus progress is so much harder in the real world than it looks on the pages of the history books though, and for the first time since the Cold War ended, I am truly afraid for America’s future.  If we cannot control ourselves, our bright dreams of space colonies, next generation biotech, super AIs, and enlightened ecological conservation will vanish… so will a lot of other things we esteem and so will some very fundamental things we have always taken for granted.

I live in bluest Brooklyn, and I don’t suppose it is a mystery where my political sympathies lie.  But it wasn’t always so.  I am a West Virginian too, with a red heart and a (perhaps overweening?) sense of our special place in the world.  This is a holiday and it isn’t time for more rancor right now, but I am going to write more about politics as the elections come up.  We need to look back 242 years and forwards 242 years too (like the founders did) if we hope to get out of this serious crisis of our democracy.

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The greatest Chinese political epic begins with the lines “Nations long divided must unite; nations long united must divide.”  We are being tested by that adage and so far, we are failing the test.  Have a happy Fourth of July!  But stay ever-mindful that we have serious painful work due on our representative government. This time the heavy lifting won’t be done by heroic half-imagined people of long ago with funny clothes, muskets, fifes, paddlewheels, and telegraphs.  It is up to us…you and me and all the people we care about with all of our dumb phones, anxieties, loudmouth ideas, and hare-brained schemes. We need to respect one another and strike new compromises, or government by the people for the people will perish here and the world will have to look to South Korea, Switzerland, Belgium, and India to find its paragons of liberty.

Ceziqy3WIAMnCkF   What in the hell  is this supposed to be?

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Hey, did I tell you about Akatsuki?  It was one of the thrilling space exploration stories of 2015—and it is just now becoming germane, but it did not get a lot of press attention in the west because of the holidays and because people were busy thinking about stupid trivia (including me).  Akatsuki is a Japanese spacecraft/space mission designed to research and explore the atmosphere of Venus (its other name is Venus Climate Orbiter).  The mission was launched in May of 2010 and the craft was supposed to go into orbit in December of 2010, but a catastrophic failure of the orbital maneuvering engine caused it to fly off into orbit around the sun (this failure was caused by a tiny salt deposit—which quietly says a great deal about the difficulties and dangers of space travel).

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The Japanese space agency turned the probe to hibernation mode to conserve energy and waited…and waited…and waited.  For five years, the craft flew through interplanetary darkness, quietly orbiting the sun as rocket scientists plotted and made corrections.  Then, in December of 2015 the agency tried again.  The combustion chamber throat and nozzle of the orbital maneuvering engine were horribly damaged (such a problem destroyed NASA’s Mars Observer probe in 1993) so JAXA jettisoned the craft’s oxidizing fuel and attempted to enter a strange elliptical orbit by means of four hydrazine attitude control thrusters. The rendezvous between Akatsuki and Venus occurred on 7 December 2015.  Using four tiny thrusters not rated for orbital maneuvering, the spacecraft made a 20 minute burn and entered Venusian orbit!  I wish I could make this sound more dramatic—it was a stupendously precise and superb piece of jerry-rigged rocket science happening around a different world.  It is a miracle this craft is not a splatter on the baking surface of Venus.  Kudos to JAXA!

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The craft was originally slated to orbit Venus every 30 Earth hours, but its wild and bumpy 5 year journey to our sister planet changed the original plans quite a bit.  In March of 2016, JAXA mission control finalized the craft’s elliptical orbit to take 9 days per orbital revolution.  Planetary observations are slated to start in mid-April—right about now! Akatsuki is the only operational human craft currently at Venus.  Its mission is to investigate Venutian meteorology with an infrared camera (we will be talking more about the insane Venutian atmosphere in a follow-up post) and to determine whether lightning and active volcanoes exist on the hot troubled world.  This information may take a while to collate and access (considering that we are only now figuring out what the results of the last Venus mission, the ESA Venus Express, actually denote.

Anyway, stay tuned for more news from Venus!  Maybe Akatsuki will be broadcasting some surprises about the little known planet next door.

Composition of Earth's Atmosphere

Composition of Earth’s Atmosphere

The atmosphere is a combination of nitrogen, oxygen, argon, and carbon dioxide.  Recently, atmospheric carbon dioxide levels have been swiftly rising.  We are not currently facing Apollo 13 style asphyxiation because carbon dioxide is captured by water to form carbonic acid.  As it happens, the oceans of planet Earth are made of water.

"Humankind Embarks on Ambitious Geoengineering Project"

“Humankind Embarks on Ambitious Geoengineering Project”

Ergo, we are turning the world’s oceans into seltzer water!  The results of such ocean acidification are devastating to the ocean’s inhabitants–as became tragically apparent this week when 10 million Canadian scallops died due to the rapidly dropping PH levels along the west coast of Canada.  The shellfish farming company “Island Scallops” lost three year’s worth of scallop harvest when the PH dropped from 8.2 to 7.3 in their scallop beds of the Georgia Strait.  Scallops have shells made of calcium carbonate—which dissolves in carbonic acid—so the creatures are unable to fight off predators and disease.

WHY?? They were so young...

WHY?? They were so young…

Of course most scallops and other sea creatures are not owned by Canadian farmers—so nobody notices when they go missing (because they have perished…or dissolved).  Most of the newspapers and news sites covering the scallop die-off have concentrated on what a blow the loss is to seafood lovers and fish farmers, but, it seems to me that this narrow financial approach ignores the fact that the majority of Earth’s surface is covered in ocean.

oceans Of course acidification of the oceans is only one part of a combined attack: the poor oceans are also being overfished, polluted, and subject to rapid temperature changes. The oceans are the cradle of life, and they remain crucial to all life on the planet.  Our amphibious ancestors climbed out of the sea long ago but the photosynthesizing algae that live there still remain critical to all life on Earth (unless you are an extremophile bacteria).  These tiny creatures are part of a vast web of life which is being torn to pieces and destroyed.  So join me in mourning the dead scallops.

Farewell to All That

Farewell to All That

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One of the problems with writing about living things is that there is a lot of troubling news from the natural world.  If one writes about the many sad or perplexing  issues affecting worldwide ecosystems, people get depressed and stop reading, but if one willfully ignores true problems…well, what is the point of observing and thinking about the world?  I remember CNN’s online newspage used to have a Science/Nature header which was so consistently filled with news of species die-offs, ecological disaster, and worldwide blight that the whole science section was canceled.  Now CNN has more room for “news” about Ashton Kutcher’s all fruit diet and a tech section with reviews of “cool gear” you can buy for your Superbowl party.  Sigh….

All of which is a round-about way of apologizing for today’s upsetting (but extremely important) post concerning the mass die-off of North America’s bats.  Wait! Please don’t go to other site to read about “Miley” Cyrus.  Bats are actually really important. They are key organisms in ecosystems across the continent.   If they all die, the rest of us mammals are also going to be in serious trouble

The culprit behind the bat deaths is a fungus, Geomyces destructans, which causes WNS–white nose syndrome.  Despite its cartoonish name, white nose syndrome is a horrible death sentence for most temperate bats in North America.  Geomyces destructans is a low temperature fungus (like the hideous specimens you find in neglected refrigerators).  As the bats hibernate, powdery white fungus builds up on their little wings and faces.  The poor itchy bats are awakened from hibernation and, because of the irritation, they cannot return to a suspended state.  The little animals quickly burn up their energy reserves and die—to then become macabre bat-shaped clumps of fungus.

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Geomyces destructans seems to have traveled to North America from European caves, probably on the boots or specialized equipment of spelunkers (strange troubled sportspeople who worm deep into the crushing dark of caves).  Now that the fungus is in North America, it appears to be spreading by means of bat to bat contact.  European bats seem to have a native resistance to the fungus, but American bats are unprepared for it and they have died in legion.  Ninety percent of New Jersey’s bats are believed to have already died.  As the plague moves to new colonies similar mortality is expected.  Although the disease started in the middle of New York State, it has quickly spread along the East coast and it is moving west.   Scientists worry that the pestilence could spread from coast to coast (although bats which live in warmer climes might be less susceptible to the low temperature fungus).  Bats reproduce slowly—usually at a rate of one pup (or less) per year, so bat colonies cannot replenish like sardine schools or rodent colonies.  Additionally the spores linger in caves even after all the bats have been killed.

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I personally love bats.  I find them endearing and beautiful (and relatable, since I have my own flighty nocturnal habits).  Western culture has not been so kind and often equates the flying mammals with witchcraft, Satan, demons, and all other manner of underworld fiends (the Chinese, however, see bats as lucky—in fact one of the Eight Taoist immortals began his cycle of incarnation as a bat).  A surprising number of Americans cleave to the old ways and smile at the horrifying curse that jackass cave explorers have unknowingly unleashed on our little chiropteran friends.

This attitude is a big mistake.

Anecdotally, the weather on North America has been worsening.  Great storms pound our coasts, droughts scorch the hinterlands, and mighty cyclones appear everywhere knocking down forests.  Imagine if, to compound these woes, vast plagues of insects descended upon our homes and crops.

Well, without bats, you won’t have to imagine.   Bats are a principal predator of insects—especially nighttime insects like mosquitoes (but also a surprising number of agricultural and forest pests).   Humans, being diurnal, underestimate bats, but insect-eating chiropterans eat 80% to 100% of their body mass in insects per night and they live in vast colonies (especially out west). Without bats we are liable to see great swarms of insects eat our crops and we will experience a resurgence of mosquito born ills.

The pallid bat (Antrozous pallidus) Photography by J. Scott Altenbach

The pallid bat (Antrozous pallidus) Photography by J. Scott Altenbach

An article in Daily Finance outlines some of the potential fall out of the great North American bat die-off (and if cold heartless financiers are worried about the environment, we know that something is really amiss).  So how can we actually help the bats? The Federal government has allocated 1.6 million dollars to study the problem, but this is not a lot of money!  Various agencies and organizations are attempting to curtail cave exploration and keep people from becoming a further vector for spreading the fungus.  Making people aware of the problems bats are facing is also a useful step (which is why I am writing this).  Most of all we need to care for bats before they are gone.  Farmers, bankers, politicians, ecologists, and scientists all need to worry about our beleaguered friends. The mass die-off of honey bees has had a horrible effect on agriculture and forestry:  the effect of a bat die off could be worse.  But even more importantly bats are social mammals—like us.  If suddenly 90% of them are dying off, it is a terrible portent as well as a horrible loss to the planet.

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