Archive for June, 2011

Ripple Patterns

June 24, 2011


  After innumerable vehicular gridlocked approaches to Chicago’s skyline over the last nearly sixty years, a recent one from the east afloat through mist and fog was ethereal and otherworldly.  It was like walking into a theater with the most magnificent of backdrops and a smoke generator laying cover for the first act.

  It was incredible.  We were sailing downwind in a light breeze, so it was silent at first.  All one could do was stare.  Time passed, we continued toward the marina at Monroe and Lake Shore Drive.  The air cleared a bit and the sounds of water lapping at hulls and unladen halyards woke us up.  Sun burned and we soon saw more clearly the iconic rectilinearity, strangely yet bereft of the usual downtown din.

  The experience reminded me of something I read about the ascent of man, how “From the stone age to ancient Greece to the Maya to modern Japan, the most technologically advanced and economically successful human beings have often been seafarers and fisheaters”*

  “…people reached the Andaman islands, Melanesia and Australia, all of which required sea crossing, within a few thousand years – whereas it took them tens of thousands of years even to begin to oust our Neanderthal rivals from Europe and inland Asia.

   I wonder about the conscious (or not so) experience of those voyages eons before even Columbus.  Were they reckless forays into the truly unknown or an adventurous hewing to a vestigial instinct?  I’ve read about Polynesian navigators able to find their way through open sea solely by reading ripple patterns on its surface. 

  Something’s gotta be going on there.  Something not to be found on a cruise ship.  Something the zeitgeist lost somewhere between the acquisition of language and literacy.  I need a compass.  Scratch that – I need a GPS.

*WSJ”We Are the Apes Who Took to the Sea”, Matt Ridley, WSJ 3-12/13/11





Pas Timide

June 17, 2011


  Can you believe the news of men of late?  Deeds done that you’d call inane if not for collateral damage, ramifications, and victims?  A presidential candidate with a love child.  A governor with one too.  A congressman broadcasting his ‘package’.  The French president of the International Monetary Fund accused of violent sexual abuse.  Jeesh.  Brings to mind the first line of a Neruda poem: “It so happens I am sick of being a man”.

  Well, I don’t wish I played for another team and understand those actions to be, like, mutations in the drive without which none of us would be here.  Still, what’s up?  Take the last incident cited above.  How could one of the most prominent men on the planet undertake such horror?  From whence could he have come?

  First reports from France conveyed a sense of outrage for the fact that a front runner for their next presidential campaign was seen across all media doing a perp walk.  Soon though came reports of other unwanted encounters with DSK and then, amazingly, of a broader related permeation of French society.

  It was incredible to listen to a female editor of the prominent French newspaper, Le Monde, describe conditions for women, though not perfect, as much better here in the USA than en France.  This from a culture in which the employment of idiomatic Americanisms can be illegal and American taste and popular culture vilified. 

  Made me break out de Tocqueville.  “In France… women commonly receive a reserved, retired, and almost conventual education… then they are suddenly abandoned, without a guide and without assistance, in the midst of all the irregularities inseparable from democratic society.”


  “Long before an American girl arrives at the marriageable age, her emancipation from maternal control begins: she has scarcely ceased to be a child, when she already thinks for herself, speaks with freedom, and acts on her own impulse.  It is rare that an American woman, at any age, displays childish timidity or ignorance.”

  Democracy in America was first published in France en Francais in 1835.  Perhaps “plus ca change plus ca meme chose” – More things change the more they remain the same.  The American women with whom I’m most familiar would most definitely not be taken for ignorant or timid.  Toward one should an uninvited paw be extended, a bloody stump would be what was pulled back. 

*Walking Around

**cf post of 10/9/09 for more examples of neat stuff us guys think up

Be Careful With What It Thinks

June 10, 2011


  Stepped the mast of our sailboat last night and then saw this summer’s first lightening bug while walking dog.  Was reminded, again, of the subtle interjection of dynamism the seasons’ change provides.  Always something new to think about.

  Most of the ones you see flashing are males.  All of the ones flying and flashing.  With their fireworks, they’re trying to impress the females in the grass below. The success rate is low because competition is high – the m/f ratio can be as high as thirty to one.  The girls each flirt with up to ten different suitors simultaneously, by signaling back, before choosing one with which to bed.

   How does she choose?  Well, sometimes a female equates a male’s flashing sequence with the size of his package.  Seriously.  It goes like this:  Firefly larva spend the first two years of their lives underground.  They don’t eat for their two week adulthood above ground. 

  Along with sperm the successful male passes a protein rich ‘nuptial gift’ to his mate enabling her to produce more eggs while she slowly starves.  The ecstatic coupling ordeal can last from dusk to dawn.

  There are some 2,000 firefly species on the planet of which a handful will be found in North America.  You might encounter several in your yard this evening.  You can differentiate by the pulse pattern – sort of like Morse code.  Pulse pulse, three second pause, pulse pulse = Photinus greeni.  Pulse, five second pause, pulse = Photinus ignitus.

  It’s thought that the ability to thus show off began in larvae eons ago as a means to convey a warning to would be predators.  Bitter taste.  Evolution coursed the luminance up the ontogeny to where we see it today.  Still though tastes bad to most other creatures which led to another bifurcation in these insects’ family tree.

  Firefly Photuris will sit in the grass feigning femininity by returning the flash of a male on wing.  Said male approaches hoping to do the dirty but gets eaten instead.  Photuris is thus even more repellent to potential predators. 

  Photuris seems to go for a rapid flash rate, just like the females.  So if a bug hopes to avoid trouble and get lucky instead it should probably try to be more suave than debonair.  And like Dad said, it should be careful with what it thinks.

*I read most of this stuff in the June 30, 2009 NYT    

Florence Shore – End of the World as We Know It

June 3, 2011


  An interesting article in the current Economist (5/24-6/3) reminds us that before Copernicus, it was thought that the earth was at the center of the universe and that we upon it were all thus imbued with God’s grace.  As the sciences evolved the perception of our position devolved to the point where, well, that “we are stardust”.

  Yep, old news.  The point of view now gaining traction though is that humankind has assumed the central role debunked long ago – at least insofar as our planet is concerned. Clear cut forestry, strip mining, large scale farming, carbon based energy etc and all the related ramifications are “bringing about an age of planetary change”.

  Geologists call the more or less discrete (geologically, meteorologically, etc) epoch in which we’ve been for the last 10,000 years the Holocene.  Scientist Paul Crutzen came to the belief that the wake the coming of man left behind has begun to shape something new.    He’s suggested we call the new age the “Anthropocene”.

  I was thinking about this the other day while in the bank with MD erstwhile geologist brother when he pointed out the ‘captured’ fossil pictured above on an interior wall.  He said it was a “cephalosomething” embedded in metamorphic limestone aka marble. He went on to say that some buildings and groups of buildings (college campuses e.g.) have maps and guidebooks locating and describing incredible arrays of such stuff.  The Burgess Shale as interior decoration!

  I realized that at some distant point in the future these buildings will have collapsed into the ground, archaeology will sort of transmute into paleontology, and given the trajectory of the average level of intelligence worry that whoever is doing the research be really confused. “How did this cephalosomething get here?  They went extinct eons before the other stuff in this layer…”

  I follow the logic above, but hesitate to adopt the new perspective.  There are too many dopes around who will get the wrong idea.  Might even think the changes we’ve wrought are something of which to be proud.  In 2005 Patagonia founder and environmentalist Yvon Chouinard said: “Forty-eight percent of people in America still don’t believe in evolution… don’t believe in global warming because it relies on scientific interpretations of core samples that are hundreds of thousands of years old, and they think the earth is only six to ten thousand years old”*.

  Some of us are even dimmer.  Jersey Shore is in its fourth season.  They’re in Florence!  People watch.  Rest my case.**

*Alpinist 12 Autumn 2005

**OMG It gets worse.  On NPR with Terri Gross Newsweek journalist Maziar Bahari describes being beaten in Teheran’s notorious Evin prison while his torturer asked about New Jersey – his interest having been piqued by the show.