I’m lucky to be alive. For one thing, I began smoking cigarettes at the age of nine. By the age of 12, I was smoking at least half a pack a day and, by the time I left home at the age of 15, I had a 40-50 a day habit. By the time I was 16 going on 17, I’d smoke another pack if I spent an evening in a tavern. I eventually stopped after 28 years of smoking, by then a heavy smoker of both cigarettes and pipe tobacco. Until that point, through parental tirades, sore throats, and occasions where I had to choose between buying a pack of cigarettes and eating something, I’d never once quit.
How did I accomplish this to-me nearly miraculous feat? By hard dint of two home-grown devices. Deep breathing or rigorous exercise helped stave off the monkey every time it really started to claw at my back. More importantly, I owe my continued existence to a mental exercise: I imagined a future version of myself standing there in a doctor’s office absorbing the news I was dying of emphysema (or cancer or heart disease), and being told there was no cure.
If only I’d stopped smoking years before. I imagined my sheepishness — shame, really — at having known for so long, at least on an intellectual level, that I was killing myself, yet never deviating from that course of action. And now it was too late. I could quit all I liked, and I was still going to die soon and unpleasantly. What really got me was a vivid sense of the futility of wanting things to be otherwise, to be somehow empowered to go back in time to a point where I could decide to quit before it was too late.
Then I realised that, in this imaginative communication with my future self, that self's devout wish might in fact be granted, and this moment was my chance to change the course of events.
Our global fix
Anthropogenic climate-change deniers behave in much the way I did, all those years I kept smoking despite the fact I was pretty sure this would eventually kill me. (Yeah, but that would be then, eh? At some time, who knew when, probably way down the road. What does that signify when you want a cigarette right now?)
And now Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway have given us The Collapse of Western Civilization. The authors introduce their book in this way:
“Science fiction writers construct an imaginary future; historians attempt to reconstruct the past. Ultimately, both are seeking to understand the present. In this essay, we blend the two genres to imagine a future historian looking back on a past that is our present and (possible) future."
In short, the protagonists of what its authors describe as a science-fiction book are looking back at our time from a future where the planet has been devastated in much the way the scientific community long promised us it would be, and they’re wondering at the wilful stupidity, compounded with short-sighted cupidity, that led us — especially those among us who were supposedly responsible policymakers — to let this catastrophe happen. Never mind policymakers and the general public alike were in full possession of the facts of the matter and had been warned again and again by the scientific community as a whole.
Just 104 pages long, the book economically and, given the authors’ backgrounds, authoritatively offers us a collective perspective on our behavior much like the POV that led me to quit tobacco.
Some say it’s too late for our planet. Maybe so. But I’d smoked heavily enough long enough that I feared I’d stopped too late. As it turns out, however, the human body is remarkably resilient, and so far it appears I may not have to pay the Piper after all. Let’s hope that homo sapiens and our planetary habitat will prove similarly blessed.
Perhaps it’ll help if enough people read Collapse.
The cartoon is from http://www.quitsmokingtoday7.com/blog/how-to-quit-smoking-according-to-doctors.
Are you a Bangkok Old Hand?
In which of the following situations would it be appropriate to use the common Thai expression mai pen rai (“never mind; no problem”)?
(a) A guest spills a little water on your coffee table.
(b) A waiter accidently dumps your beer into your lap.
(c) You go downstairs one morning in the rainy season and find that those of your possessions that float are floating, while everything else is under water.
(d) You read that the greenhouse effect—the gradual warming of the global climate and the subsequent melting of the polar ice-caps—means that all of Bangkok will be under water by the end of the century.
Or perhaps even much sooner than the end of the century, given recent evidence.
It turns out the “mai pen lai” attitude is far more widespread than a certain class of Western expats resident in Thailand would normally grant. It seems we even have the upper legislative house in the modern world’s leading superpower formally suggesting that current climate change is not anthropogenic, and (in effect) we should at all costs vote in favor of commercial interests, and screw the rest of the world as well as future generations everywhere. (“Senate says scientists are wrong, climate change isn’t real” [what they said was that it isn’t caused by human activity] by Sean Cockerham, 22 January 2015.)
'The chairman of the environment committee, Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., ... an enthusiastic denier of climate change, [says] it is the “biggest hoax” perpetrated against mankind.
Well, shit. Yeah. Heaven forbid we should let such patent hubris on the part of human beings inhibit the march of commerce, eh? Because it appears the bottom line here is that nothing should interfere with the Keystone pipeline project and other US energy self-sufficiency measures.
For more on this, see my next post on this site, “How I quit smoking,” which in part provides brief notice of a new book that should be required reading for everyone in the world, starting with our political, business and educational policymakers.
Answer to the above Bangkok Old Hand Quiz item: In all of those situations: a, b, c and d.
app (n.) 1. originally from computer software app*lication; 2 (n.) bio smartphone and tablet app*endages, most commonly specimens of Homo sapiens.
When extraterrestrials finally arrived on Earth circa 2021 for a look around, they discovered that the dominant life forms were evolved digital communications devices. Subsequent investigation suggested that these creatures had only recently emerged on the scene, and at first the aliens couldn’t see what had given rise to them.
But then one team noticed tiny bio appendages dangling from many of the endemic Smartphone and Tablet spp. Even as the digital beings had developed, their evolutionary antecedents had shriveled to largely vestigial organs, more decorative than functional. Later investigations revealed that a pre-Homo app specimen of Homo sapiens, one designated Collin Piprell according to prevailing naming conventions, had foreseen these developments in something he referred to as a central irony of their age.
Other Earthly species had already undergone parallel developments. One such example was Haplophryne mollis. “When scientists first started capturing ceratioid anglerfish, they noticed that all of the specimens were female. These individuals were a few centimetres in size and almost all of them had what appeared to be parasites attached to them. It turned out that these "parasites" were highly reduced male ceratioids."
Female anglerfish with atrophied males attached.
The Peak Experience.
In a recent post, I reflected on the strange compulsion to record every iota of our individual and collective experience and then share it with everyone else, each of whom is trying to do the same. How can anyone enjoy an unmediated experience of night-time Hong Kong from Victoria Peak, for example? (“Colonialized: The Peak Experience”)
There I stood at the rail on the viewing platform, getting a many-elbowed massage from others who had mounted an assault on the Peak Experience. I stood my ground, trying for a contemplative appreciation of what should be an amazing sight, wishing all the camera flashes weren’t destroying my night vision and wondering how these ranks of lemming photographers thought their cellphone flashes were going to further illuminate the city lying hundreds of meters below.
The Mona Lisa Experience.
Some years ago I was wandering about in the Louvre when it suddenly occurred to me: This very museum was home to one of the most widely recognized of all the great works of Western culture. Best have a look, I thought. Take an up close and personal peek at this phenomenon.
But there was no getting close to this thing. It was railed off and surrounded by a mob. As with views of the Hong Kong colonial light-creature (see earlier post), furthermore, you had to stand tippy-toes to see over other admirers standing four and five deep, not to mention risk blindness from the barrage of photographic flashes. The Mona Lisa’s famous smile, from what I could see, which was very little, looked more like a wince.
So scratch the Mona Lisa. Sara figured her YouTube Victoria Peak Experience beat “the real thing,” and I got more juice out of magazine repros of the Mona Lisa than I ever did from the real McCoy.
A cultural icon? Sure. McMona Lisa.
The Whale Shark Experience.
Swimming with whale sharks can be awesome. It’s best, I’d say, when the encounter is unexpected and you’re sharing it with a couple of other divers at most. It’s even better when these divers don’t have cameras (or, at least in the old days, when they’ve run out of film). But maybe that’s just me.
Too often these days, especially on liveaboard dive trips dedicated to finding whale sharks, you get gangs of divers all plunging into the water together going flash-flash, often getting mainly pix of other divers going flash-flash. The shark lurks in the background, figuring it’s past time, if only it can find a way to break clear of all its groupies, to migrate back to deep water.
Hey, but progress marches on. Several years ago, enterprising sports-diving entrepreneurs, not wanting to leave the Whale Shark Experience to chance, started using spotter planes around Western Australia’s Nigaloo Reef. Having drawn a bead on the sharks, they radioed fast boats which then sped off to dump loads of divers as close as possible to the sharks, no doubt massively freaking out all but the hammiest of these creatures.
Not what I’d call close encounters with untamed nature.
Since then, however, commercial imperatives and the triumph of the “fair’s fair, down with elitism; let’s democratize every damned thing there is” meme has gone way beyond the Nigaloo Experience.
Take Macau, for instance. An enthusiasm for glitzy casinos on the part of mostly non-locals has already all but erased the charming Sino-Portuguese colonial architecture and distinctive local way of life. And the boom continues. The 2,900-room Venetian, e.g., the Las Vegas Venetian’s sister development, boasts the largest gambling area in the world. Hell, it keeps a captive Venice on the third floor, complete with canals, gondolas and gondoliers, even a faux sky that remains benign no matter what the weather outside. This is a new, improved Venice with no rain and no floods and shiny big name-brand boutiques on all sides.
So how do you beat that? Easy. Toss some whale sharks in a big aquarium and invite happy crowds of adventurers to come goggle at them. New casino-related projects include funparks complete with whale shark enclosures so visitors can have a big adventure snapping photos of this largest of all fish species, beautiful creatures that, till recently, had remained rarely sighted and mysterious.
“Twenty years ago, scientists did not know much about what whale sharks ate, where they spent their time or how they reproduced. Historically, seeing a whale shark in the wild was a rare experience, even for veteran divers. Jacques Cousteau reportedly encountered only two whale sharks his whole life.” (“How to Love a Whale Shark,” Scientific American)
But now every Tom, Dick and Harry with the price of a Macau vacation can snap any number of whale shark photos and show them to friends back home who have already seen them a hundred times before on TV and YouTube. Borrr-ing. (Casino developers in Singapore are planning something similar.)
Never mind. Democratization and anti-elitism rools, OK! And who am I to suggest these experiences soon become degraded for both those privileged with the time and money to do it right and for those on a budget. Not to mention for the whale sharks.
Untamed nature for Everyman? Sure. McWhale Sharks.
The Me, Me, Me Experience. Where are we really going with all this? Good question. We’re already photographing every square centimeter of Mars and much of the rest of the solar system. Which is nothing, considering the fact there are untold billions of galaxies in our universe, and each galaxy includes billions of stars and quite a number of solar systems.
The Hubble telescope, for one, is peering into deep space to find that even the apparently emptiest bit of our sky harbors thousands upon thousands of galaxies, more of them the deeper you peer. This video shows what some are describing as the most important image ever recorded in human history.
Whoa. McMe. I guess that puts all those galaxies and stuff in perspective, eh?
The Afterthought Experience.
We’re witnessing the triumph of the “fair’s fair, down with elitism; let’s democratize every damned thing there is” meme. Meanwhile we distance ourselves from our own experience in the ongoing commodification and mass distribution of everything including ourselves.
“Does that make any sense at all?” Sara asks me.
“It probably needs more editing,” I tell her. “Plus I think I might have something like a hangover.”
"Selfie," a recent neologism, appears destined for the standard dictionaries.
"Mediacratization" is of my own coinage, a portmanteau of "mediate" and "mediocritization" hot off the press, and probably doomed to oblivion. "Mass mediacratization begets mediocritization," an aphorism for our times, and, again, hot off the press.
Related insights from Susan Sontag: "Tourists in our own and each others' realities."
"These tourist snappers are killing the Mona Lisa" (The Guardian)
Jonathan Kang, Kuroshio Sea of the Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium, Okinawa, Japan
Whale shark images by Ashley J. Boyd. (Boyd, an Australian resident in Thailand, was long one of Southeast Asia’s leading underwater photographers. A highly qualified diving instructor and teacher of underwater photography, Ashley has logged close to 4,000 dives. His photographs have been widely published in books, magazines, calendars and postcards, while his underwater video has been used in advertising and TV. He has collaborated with Collin Piprell on dozens of articles and three books (all of them now out of print):
Below us lies a massive growth of porous luminosity, its cellular steel and glass exoskeleton inhabited by various species of soft light. A colossal marine organism has emerged to colonize the harborside. Brighter creatures enjoy mutualistic relations with the colonial host. Some of them, Logo spp., are neural parasites that prey on humans.
Sara and I stand atop the Peak Tower with a bunch of other creatures, not yet colonial but through the wonders of digital technology fast evolving that way. We stand four or five deep at the railing, cameras and phones held high overhead, obsessively flash-flashing at the softly throbbing creature below us for some important reason that no one knows, driven by a primordial imperative to record innumerable images of this thing we’ve been led to, and then share them by means of social networking until, ideally, every sentient being in the universe has witnessed the giant light-creature on the shore.
Lo, and verily. And eventually, as we did once before this day, we come to stand in a queue of thousands to enter the tram, this time to be delivered back down from the Peak for reabsorption by the light creature. As we descend, it becomes progressively less apparent that this thing is in fact one organism.
During our precipitous descent, we catch glimpses up through bright high-rise canyons where members of the colony dwell.
Sara later reveals the fact she had already experienced the Peak Experience on YouTube that very morning. And then, just to rub it in, she say she did this thing without suffering interminable waits in line for the tram and pushy mobs on the viewing platform.
“Jasus, jasus,” I tell her. “We could’ve stayed in Bangkok and saved the airfare, not to mention the hours spent standing in queue.”
“Yes,” she says. “But it freshens the mind to visit different places.”
And to record every square centimeter of the buggers, and take the same photos millions of other travelers have and try to share these experiences with someone, except that everyone has already experienced them, at least on YouTube.
“Did that video really convey the Experience?” I ask her.
“No. It was much better. They took it when there was some special light show.”
Whatever. As Sara pointed out, there was plenty more to enjoy in Hong Kong.
See "McStuff and the triumph of democratic mediacrization" for more on these ideas.
Related insights from Susan Sontag: "Tourists in our own and each others' realities."
Notes. The illustration doesn't begin to do justice to the Victoria Peak Experience.
The other shot is from the Kowloon side of the harbor on the 118th floor of the Ritz Carleton, atop the ICC Building. The Ozone is reportedly the highest bar in the world. (I believe the tall building in the top left corner of the first photo is the ICC Building.)
What have tilefish and superyacht owners got in common?
Collin posed this question at the end of his last post, "Pharaonic fish and flash fatcats." And now he has invited me, Jack Shackaway, who remains unbound by considerations of political correctness, to explain.
The following passages are from a novel in progress starring yours truly — even written by yours truly though Collin will no doubt try to claim otherwise. The book is a work of fiction, but I'm real and the things described in this chapter, at least, actually happened. You could call it straight-up reportage. And here, something that Collin would never do, I insert a smiley-face: Hah!
“Japanieces!” Des told me.
We were standing in a large open-air hot pool high on a jungly hillside on the island of Langkawi, in Malaysia, palm fronds silouetted against a big moon overhead, bright strings of colored lights festooning the bar below. Only a few yards away, four luscious japanieces-to-be stood immersed to their bikini-tops.
“Oh, boy!” Des added.
Rich yacht owners have lots of nieces. You tend to find these items draped about their boats, many of them in advanced states of undress and sometimes, not often, more than half the age of their hosts. One theory has it that an inordinate fondness for nieces is the only reason someone who is otherwise of sound mind would ever buy such an expensive toy as a multi-million-dollar boat. In fact, according to Des, this amounts to no more than an expensive dick-enlargement operation.
“But we get to play for free,” he added. “God is good.” The mere sight of this congregation of Japanese office girls giggling and blushing away in the hot pool had instantly telegraphed a clear vision of the near future.
“You are staying in this hotel?” asked the cutest Japanese girl of all.
Wild surmise swept the pool like an early monsoon gale. “You mean, the big white boat?” asked the second and third cutest ones. “The big white boat down in the bay?” asked the fourth, who was also cute, never mind there was only one yacht of any description anchored down there, and where else would you put a yacht anyway?
“Yeah. That’s right.”
Their eyes grew as huge as Japanese eyes could get, no doubt in the attempt to accommodate the immensity of this concept, this enormous amazing motor yacht way down below in the bay and the fact that we slept on it. The water in the hot pool began to boil all around us as the girls crowded closer. In no time we were on a first-name basis with Tomoko, Hiroko, Sachi and Yumiko.
“Want a drink?” I asked.
“Yes!” they chorused.
“And Bob’s your uncle,” said Des, with a broken-toothed grin, although I think he really meant to say that we were their uncles, for now, and these fine young japanieces should just relax and let us look after everything.
A couple of musicians were beating the shit out of a piano and drums while a bass guitarist measured the carnage. This gang of three plus a singer and trumpeter rushed from one piece to another, laying a vaguely bossa nova beat over everything from Bach to Bachman-Turner Overdrive, charging along as though they wanted to finish up and skedaddle before the cops arrived.
Des seemed just about as antsy. “Boy, those drinks look good, all those little parasols and slices of pineapple. Cherries and shit. Don’t let them get warm, now. That’s it. Down the hatch. There’s lots more of this stuff on the boat. Oh, my. Yes. On the yacht.” Once more, he pointed out the big plate-glass bar window to where Boomboom II sat far below on the water. “Cheers!” he said.
“Kampai,” the girls responded, which, as they had already told us, was Japanese for “cheers.”
“Japaneices, man.” Des whispered at me, waggling his eyebrows in a very discreet manner. “We got japaneices by the boatload. Oh, boy.”
Forget about how busted up he was, Des was a ladies’ man. Pretty soon he was talking to Tomoko in an anodyne semi-pidgin. “I never get rich from photography,” I heard him say, “but I am free.”
“Yes,” Tomoko said, squinting in the way women who are nearly blind and haven’t installed their contact lenses tend to squint. “I see.”
Even smart women like this Japanese office girl generally chose to overlook the essential banality of it all. Somehow, in some way unclear to me, Des’s whole manner and appearance signaled “good for the gene pool.” It probably related to his obvious capacity to survive anything existence could throw at him. Des had that look you see in veteran rodeo riders. National Hockey League goalies used to have it, back in the days before face masks. The look that said, “Do your damnedest; I’ve sustained lots worse and I’m still truckin’.” Nevertheless, Desmond’s most recent girlfriend had left. Bryanni said she still loved him, only she couldn’t stand watching him die the Death of a Thousand Boo-boos.
But he had big eyes and long eyelashes, which he batted, bimbo-wise, and no compunctions about telling a woman anything he thought she might want to hear, and right now he was making out like a bandit.
Meanwhile I was doing my thing, batting my own eyes and explaining to Sachi and Hiroko how I wrote travel articles and suchlike. Just to make a living. But I was really a novelist, when it came right down to it. An artist, really, though I didn’t use that exact word.
“Ah, so,” Sachi said. “What is your name again?”
“Jack. Jack Shackaway.”
“Ah, so,” Hiroko also said, maybe thinking I didn’t believe they were really Japanese.
They were asking where they could buy my books and I was waffling when Des came to the rescue.
“That’s right. And he’s a war correspondent too. Both of us are. Partners to the end. Brothers in arms.”
“Oh, yeah,” I said. “That’s right.” I’d been trying to forget our latest adventure.
Tomoko and Hiroko headed off for the bathroom, and Des, dropping the pidgin and maybe forgetting Yumiko probably didn’t understand one-tenth of what he was saying, took to telling her, “Yeah, you see, if I build up my photo stock just a bit more—flesh out Malaysia and so on—and with these agencies flogging my stuff in the States and Europe, I figure on retiring before I’m forty-five. Okay?”
Pretty little frown lines formed between her perfectly plucked brows. “Ah,” she told him. “So.”
“Wow,” added Tomoko. She and Hiroko had returned to the table and also pretended to know what Des was talking about, which was something Des himself did not.
“It takes discipline. A freelance photojournalist has to face temptation all the time. You know what I mean? But you can’t give in. You have to have goals, man, and stick to them.”
And Des was sticking pretty close to Yumiko, set to score this particular goal. And maybe still set to score another with Tomoko, since I knew he was capable of adopting any attitude it took to get laid, and maybe two at once. Attitudes, that is. New Age, Marxist-Leninism—whatever they wanted to hear. Even abject middle-class propriety, if that’s what it took, as seemed to be the case with Yumi.
“So.” She tried to jog his memory. “You sleep on the big white boat?”
That’s when we should have made our move—told the ladies to go pack their overnight bags and we’d hightail it for the boat. But Des had maybe had one too many drinks, trying to hurry the girls along, and now he decided the band needed help. In fact, the band really sucked, he told us right in the middle of their bossa nova rendition of “Hotel California.”
“The band really sucks,” he announced again, and he went up to this very band and asked whether he could sit in for the next number.
As a piano player, at least when he was in full stride, as he happened to be at this moment, Des was a cross between Fats Waller and someone trying to demolish a whole piano with his bare hands. As a matter of fact, Des did have his own personal martial arts style, which he’d learned at the same place he learned to play the piano, which was a succession of low-life bars around the world. It was called tae kwan whoa, he informed me once, just before he broke both a guardrail and his foot with one lightning kick. His piano-playing style, on the other hand, had no name, even though it could get a joint rocking under just the right circumstances which these weren’t.
I noticed the japanieces were already looking nervous about their new friends, when the crew from Boomboom II burst upon the scene like a nineteenth-century press gang raiding a Bristol tavern. ...
“There is no God.” Des proclaimed.
QED. There we were, japanieceless aboard Boomboom II and on our way to Burma...
So that's how Des and I got to appreciate on a gut level -- however briefly -- in what way tilefish and super-yacht owners are same-same.
Collin seems to be planning other tilefish-related posts. I can't say what those will be.
I hope you noticed the expression "japanieces," which is a neologism coined by none other than me no matter what Collin might tell you about its provenance.
Have a look at Kicking Dogs, an earlier novel starring me, written by me, hijacked by Collin, out of print and currently languishing on the Internet as an utterly neglected e-book. Collin is even worse at promoting books than he is at writing them.
Photo of Amanputri by J. Everingham.
J.B.S. Haldane, perhaps more of a wag than most of his ilk, famously suggested that "The Creator, if He exists, has an inordinate fondness for beetles."
According to the people who filmed these tilefish back in 2003, this species had till then remained undescribed by scientists. Once again I’ve been too slow off the mark, because I described this fish in 2001. I can't find the original video with the associated claim, but here's some excellent footage of tilefish and their mounds.
I’ve been known to brag about having already been there and done that, years ahead of my time way back when (e.g. see “Chronicle of an urban drowning foretold”). Today it’s time for a new brag: Here’s something I noted in a dive log from a Mergui Archipelago trip back in May 2001. The main point is the tilefish pyramid sighting (I add the rest only as background and to show how rich the marine life was).
Unnamed reef just north of G.W. Torres
dive (24 May) Breaking waves at surface. Down to 60 feet. Interesting topography, rocky ravines with staghorn thickets in bottoms, big fans on walls. A wall, boulders, down to sand. A couple of 2.5m sharks, prob. gray reef sharks. Several blue-spotted rays, a very big lobster. A few big groupers. Saw four different sea urchin species within a small area (black long-spined, little blue-and tan jewel boxes, whiteish porcupine quills, and a pencil urchin). As I waited for pickup, spotted a pink jellyfish with 2-3m tentacles and little fish seeking protection among them.
Same reef, but on the outside (western side)
dive (24 May) The deep V cove where we anchored for lunch has a vast area of coral heads set in vivid turquoise water. Fine first-growth forest on both sides, tall whiteish trunks, high canopy. It’s been sunny all afternoon, with cirrus and haze on horizons. The point of the cove, on the left as you go out — same side as the unnamed reef — is a jumble of Similans-style granite boulders. The whole shore along that side, out of the cove, is boulders. Also between shore and reef. About 26m of water. At low tide, the reef breaks at about 1.5m. Lots of boulder diving. In 14-20m shallows coming up, a good surge, caves and swim-throughs for “bouldering”. A big electric blue crown-of-thorns, another big grouper (0.75-1m long), sea snake, Hawksbill turtle (Bonnie touched it after Graham spooked it and it swam right into her), a tuna, lots of reef fish (lots) in shallow sunlit waters.
Tilefish (blue, 10”), in pairs — mound-builders at 25m. One fish book gives a related species a range of 30-115m. Different books mention different species, one bigger, one smaller. The biggest mound (coral bits/rubble) was about 12’x8’x3’ high. That one was also topped with a smooth, regular crater like a little volcano. On some of the mounds you could see the entry/exit hole. One of a pair swam into one while I watched; the other stayed outside.Good corals.
Dougal, who got separated from the rest of us, claimed a shovel-nosed ray. We left the reef unnamed.
And some field notes from surface
On the boat later, I observe a well-endowed fellow diver display herself in a silvery bikini. Meanwhile a diver dude appears set to out-display this vision. He’s wearing a psychedelic wetsuit fit to give me a headache and top-of-the-line gear including outsized fins that could mark him as an aspiring Olympic underwater speed swimmer or something.
So I’m thinking this, and I’m thinking that, and suddenly I realize what the tilefish pyramids are all about. It’s a sexual display. It's “I’m the man” behavior common to all kinds of animal species, including Homo sapiens. These tilefish mounds become exaggerated out of all reason as a courtship display. Any specimen with that much energy to squander on building pyramids would be guaranteed the pick of the prom. It's a pharaonic fish's equivalent to the peacock’s tail or swimfins too big for this trimaran. An enormous expenditure of resources simply to say "I can afford to do this. So mate with me."
The male of our own species has come up with so many ways of advertising his masculinity it puts the tilefish to shame. Tune in for the next post in this series to learn more about what tilefish and superyacht owners, e.g., have in common.
Here's an interesting note from an invertebrate neuroethologist who presents evidence that peahens may not really be looking for tail, as such, after all.
Save the whales; save the gibbons. Yeah, yeah. But here's how to help save the whole world. Be the first on your block to start ranching sea squirts. It seems these leathery wee bags with two openings and way-kinky social lives might be just what the doctor ordered when it comes to clean energy.
Back in 1995, at the request of White Lotus Press, I collaborated with photographer Ashley J. Boyd on a natural history of Thailand’s coral reefs, including their distribution and condition.
ASCIDIANS (Phylum Chordata, subphylum Urochordatga)
These animals are more commonly known either as sea squirts or tunicates. ‘Ascidian’ is derived from askos, the Greek for ‘wine flask,’ and very often they do resemble leathery little bags with two openings — one to let in water bearing oxygen and plankton, and one to let waste water out. They can close one or both openings, but more often leave both open, with a stream of water passing continuously through. A 30-mm sea squirt can filter about one liter per hour (they range from several millimeters to several centimeters in size).
However primitive this description may make the sea squirts seem, they do in fact have stomachs, intestines and, being hermaphroditic, not only a testicle but an ovary too. The test surrounding these animals is supplied with blood vessels. The mantle has muscles by means of which the tunicate can open and close its siphons or contract the body as a whole.
Ascidians belong to the Phylum Chordata. Although they do not have a backbone, their larvae have notochords which help support muscular tails and which are evolutionary harbingers of the true backbones. The larvae also have gill slits, which would also seem to ally them more closely than their adult forms to the higher organisms. It is indeed thought possible that the tunicates are the ancestral chordate — ancestor, that is, to all of us.
In their adult phase the tunicates become sedentary (much like many humans), attaching themselves either singly or in colonies to the undersurface of rocks on the reef flat, to the roofs and walls of caves on the reef slope, and to the sides of holes and crevices. They also make some contribution to the consolidation of rubble caught in depressions around the reef rim (although ascidians can be found everywhere from the low tide mark to the ocean deeps as well).
Their social life is more interesting than one might grant at first glance. Besides propagating hermaphroditically, for example, some reproduce by budding. And individuals sometimes cluster around a single common cloaca, thus constituting ‘composite ascidians.’ So-called ‘social ascidians,’ on the other hand, remain united to the parent individual after budding.
Sea squirts are protected from humans by the fact they aren’t much good for anything (or so it was believed until it was discovered that some yield substances, such as didemnin B, which are helpful in the treatment of leukemia and tumorous growths). Their tough, leathery bags protect them from a variety of other predators, however, notably starfish and various species of mollusk. The sessile varieties, though, are often displaced by more competitive organisms such as sponges. In at least one instance, tunicates offer protective camouflage to another animal — some types of crab characteristically carry an envelope of sea squirts which may help protect the crustacean from its enemies.
There is a class of tunicates (Thaliacea) which are free-swimming. Ranging in length from a few centimeters to two meters in length, these animals are transparent, cylindrical or cone-shaped creatures sometimes mistaken for jellyfish.
Note the remark regarding their possible use to humankind:
Sea squirts are protected from humans by the fact they aren’t much good for anything (or so it was believed until it was discovered that some yield substances, such as didemnin B, which are helpful in the treatment of leukemia and tumorous growths).
As it turns out, however, these interesting critters, which quite possibly incorporate the evolutionary prototype for our backbones, could well have a greater role than that to play in the scheme of things. Here’s something an environmentalist friend and sometime diving companion from Bali just sent me:
Five researchers at the University of Bergen (UiB) and Uni Research say they found the marine animal tunicate could be used as a renewable source of biofuel. These marine animals serve as bacteria eaters and as a foodstuff in Korea and Japan right now, but the cellulose, the protein and the Omega-3 fatty acids in tunicate are the cause for its many uses.
“Its mantle consists of cellulose, which is a collection of sugars. When cellulose is cleaved, one can obtain ethanol. And ethanol can be used for biofuel in cars. The animal’s body consists of large amounts of protein and Omega-3. This can be used for fish feed,” says Professor Eric Thompson at UiB’s Department of Biology.
The researchers say they have already acquired a patent for biofuel and have a patent application pending for the cultivation of tunicate as fish feed.
Dr. Sc. Christofer Troedsson of Uni Research’s Molecular Ecology Group and head of the research at UiB’s Marine Development Biology and the tunicate research project said the bioethanol used today is unsustainable, as it comes from foods already used for human consumption.
“That is why there has been a move towards using cellulose from the timber industry to produce bioethanol,” Troedsson said. “However, it is quite complicated to break down the cellulose in trees and convert it into ethanol. This is because the wood contains a substance called lignin, which is hard to separate from the cellulose. Tunicates contain no lignin. Their cellulose is also low in crystals and is more efficiently converted into ethanol.”
He said using tunicate rather than trees is more environmentally friendly because it does not occupy large tracts of land that could be used for other purposes.
Tunicate, specifically the subspecies ascidiaces, is not in the food chain, so there are no creatures dependent on it to survive. They also grow quickly and are found in all oceans.
“We have spent years to arrive at these findings, so the prize is a nice recognition. Now we look forward to working on commercializing the results,” says Thompson.
Another ocean dweller scientists are looking at for a source of biofuel is algae. Last November, engineers from the University of Michigan said they “pressure cooked” algae for as little as a minute and transformed 65 percent of the green slime into biocrude, a process that typically takes Mother Nature millions of years. Researchers believe an area of algae the size of New Mexico could provide enough oil to match current US petroleum consumption.
So what can we learn from all that? First, it's clear we need to show more respect for our fellow creatures, no matter how obscure and apparently insignificant. Global extinction rates are currently running at tens of thousands of species per year, and many of these creatures are disappearing forever because of careless human activity. Even if we put aside their intrinsic value and interest as unique expressions of our world’s creative emergence, we just never know when a species is going to prove useful, even commercially valuable.
So guess where I’m putting all my money. Sea squirts rool, OK!
“Aha,” says my Sara, in what might be an admiring tone. She knows I didn’t get where I am today by being blind to trends.
Thailand's Coral Reefs (Bangkok: White Lotus, 1995), by Collin Piprell. Photos by Ashley J. Boyd. Natural history and conservation of reefs. Out of print.
Tunicate photo by Ashley J. Boyd.
Rude revision to one’s life plans: Florida man disappears with bedroom into sinkhole.
The news these days is enough to have us all hiding under our beds. Not that this strategem is foolproof, it seems.
Other network-newsworthy causes for alarm:
Near miss: asteroid.
Near miss: meteorite shower over Russia (largely spares pop. centers).
Near miss: fiscal cliff; sequester still plunging through atmosphere inspiring panic in many quarters.
Here’s a clip from a 2009 Wall St. Journal interview with Cormac McCarthy (author of The Road, a fine post-apocalyptic novel).
WSJ: When you discussed making "The Road" into a movie ... did [they] press you on what had caused the disaster in the story?
CM: A lot of people ask me. I don't have an opinion. At the Santa Fe Institute I'm with scientists of all disciplines, and some of them in geology said it looked like a meteor to them. But it could be anything — volcanic activity or it could be nuclear war. It is not really important. The whole thing now is, what do you do? The last time the caldera in Yellowstone blew, the entire North American continent was under about a foot of ash. People who've gone diving in Yellowstone Lake say that there is a bulge in the floor that is now about 100 feet high and the whole thing is just sort of pulsing. From different people you get different answers, but it could go in another three to four thousand years or it could go on Thursday. No one knows.
Re-reading that McCarthy interview, and hearing about the unfortunate Florida resident, I was reminded of a story I wrote in 2004 about the Andaman Sea tsunami, which killed nearly 230,000 people and caused incalculable property damage (“Monster Beneath the Garden,” by Collin Piprell, Phuket Magazine). The lead to that story is especially pertinent.
It’s like having some fabled subterranean monster beneath your garden. One minute it’s all butterflies and flowers and skipping about in the sun. The next, the earth opens up to devour you.
Countries bordering the Andaman Sea and Indian Ocean have long presented the world with a vast tropical playground of beautiful beaches, rich forests and marine life, exotic cultures and welcoming local people. And the Phuket area enjoys an added attraction — historically, it has appeared all but immune to natural disaster. Even typhoons have been rare and generally weakened by the time they hit this part of Asia. “Disasters” tend to run to such things as a temporary drop in whale-shark sightings among scuba divers.
For untold years, meanwhile, a monster lurked beneath this idyllic garden. Perhaps 40 kilometres beneath the sea bottom not far west of northern Sumatra and running north under the Andaman-Nicobar islands and beyond, colossal pieces of the earth’s crust, subjected to unimaginable pressures countered by friction between these blocks, were trying to slide past one another along a 1,200-kilometre fault line. Given the current state of geophysical sciences, there was no way to anticipate when the slip would come. But come it did. In the event, it set off an earthquake measuring 9.0 on the Richter scale, the world’s biggest in 40 years, and violent enough, according to geologist Kerry Sieh of the California Institute of Technology, as quoted by CNN, to make the Earth wobble on its axis.
The point of all this? What with devastating tsunamis and sinkholes under beds, I find myself periodically reflecting on the contingent nature of our moment-to-moment existence. From this perspective, current threats from disciples of Ayn Rand and Al Qaeda together with renewed economic recession to my financial prospects may pale beside other quirks of Fate.
Never mind. My office ceiling might choose this moment to collapse on me, spelling an end to concern about any of this, including calderas pregnant with surprise or some micro-meteorite on a trajectory to aerate my head.
“What a good idea,” says Sara. I'm not sure what she means by this. It's hard to interpret her smile.
Sinkhole photo from the Christian Science Monitor.
For more on the Yellowstone caldera: "Yellowstone's Plumbing Exposed."
Tsunami map from http://tsunami2004videoarchive.com.
Scratch the Mayan Apocalypse. One less thing to worry about, eh?
Of course we still have all the political issues du jour—left vs right, conservatives/conservatives1/conservatives2 vs liberals/liberals1/liberals2, pro-gay marriage vs anti-gays, legalize ganja vs leave the trade to the mobsters, red vs yellow, orange vs chartreuse, etc., etc.
Beneath these lurk more fundamental issues, among them these:
- irresponsible and insufficiently restrained corporate éminences grises everywhere you look, though your average citizen isn’t supposed to look;
- a constellation of associated sub-issues, including the power of lobbyists in the US Congress; “free trade” and its careless policies justified in terms of cartoonish economic models of human individuals and their communities— models that have assumed the status of common sense even among the people in the street, its prime victims; the apparent lack of common purpose in the polity at large, with the fragmentation of peculiarly individualistic, “pluralistic” politics tending towards a massive number of interest groups each with a vigorously partisan membership of one;
- the politics of fear together with modern technologies (among these the ever-more sophisticated tools of big data and drone surveillance and attack aircraft for hire to whoever), promising totalitarianism of a quality undreamed of by earlier generations; and
- conveniently enough, from some POVs, at the same time we have the diffusion of individual focus and creativity and, with social media and other technology, the rise of faster, more effective means of constructing the realities we dwell within.
Other urgent issues prowl even deeper and darker depths of our collectively constituted realities. One of these, global climate change, has actually grabbed our attention, as we watch its huge black dorsal fin slice back and forth across the surface of public discourse, edging ever closer and interfering with our enjoyment of sports broadcasts and remote foreign wars—though many people still claim it’s really nothing more than a school of special interests wearing a big shark hat and scaring the shit out of us, not to mention a bunch of money.
And there’s more. Lots more. Bio-engineering and modern eugenics, Transhumanist moves toward long-lived people maximally free of pain (as reductionists understand such), unsustainable demands on the planet's natural resources by ascendant Asian, S. American and African economies with First World countries unwilling to compensate them for moderating these demands, supercomputers about to take a quantum leap into qubital wizardry that could make our current digital revolution look like the invention of the doorknob. I could go on, but I think I’ve already established my street creds as a raving loony.
Wait. I forgot. We also have the failure of the Western metaphysic, and the concomitant pandemic malaise, the spiritual equivalent of HIV/AIDS, except for religious fundamentalists of all stripes who instead appear to suffer manic dementia. Hey, I’m just saying, eh?
Almost. Did I mention, speaking of pathological enthusiasms and their rewards, that I’m still tired and out of sorts from New Year’s Eve?
Happy 2013. Whatever. As least I’m in better shape than I was on New Year’s Day 2011, when Providence went all Rube Goldbergesque on me.
What the hell--here's a final treat for those who just can't get enough hysteria: Check out this post on cymbalalalalzophobia.