31 May 2008
30 May 2008
29 May 2008
28 May 2008
27 May 2008
26 May 2008
25 May 2008
…from the BBC:
Stray Japan parrot talks way home
Who's a clever boy then? Yosuke talked his way out of trouble
A stray parrot was reunited with its owner in Japan after repeating its name and address at the local veterinary clinic that took it in, police said.
Police captured the red-tailed African Grey, Yosuke, earlier this month after a woman called to say it was sitting on a fence in her backyard near Tokyo.
The parrot was then handed over to the animal clinic to be cared for.
It began by greeting people and singing popular children's songs, before repeating its name and address.
Police matched the name with its owner, who was reunited with Yosuke earlier this week.
The parrot had become lost two weeks ago after flying out of its cage in Nagareyama city, Chiba prefecture, near Tokyo.
"I'm glad I had taught him my address and name," the Daily Yomiuri newspaper quoted his owner as saying.
The African Grey parrot is considered one of the most intelligent birds and is said by experts to have the cognitive ability of a six-year-old.
[plaid parrot by Morris Armstrong, Jr., proudly a.k.a. "Little Mo"]
The Sanctity of Evil
Is the capacity for evil one of the defining characteristics of our humanity?
A book which begins with the sentence “Evil makes us Human” must surely compel attention. …
… There is also a pleasing irony in the thought that what was once imagined to be the location of Eden is almost certainly in what is now Iraq.
…from the Times Literary Supplement:
May 23, 2008
Nature's greatest architects
How do animals manage their feats of engineering,
and what does it tell us about their minds?
From bird nests and beaver dams to spider webs and the display arenas of bowerbirds, the architecture of animals has fascinated our species from the dawn of history. The order and regularity of honey bee comb has inspired human builders and philosophers alike. Paper-making wasps and adobe-using birds may have opened our eyes to important technological innovations, and the relentless works of coral colonies dwarf human achievements. How do animals manage their feats of engineering, and what does it tell us about their minds?
Mike Hansell, an emeritus professor at the University of Glasgow, has written extensively on the building behaviour of caddis-fly larvae, wasps and birds. Two of his previous books, Animal Architecture and Building Behaviour (1984) and Bird Nests and Construction Behaviour (2000) are classics: wonderfully detailed and extensively illustrated. They focus on how structures are built, and discuss with great insight the physical and chemical constraints imposed by natural materials.
Built by Animals represents a complete change of pace. Hansell’s focus here is far more on the mental processes behind the behaviour. The style could hardly be more different: Hansell writes entirely in the first person, as though he is reminiscing. The result is a highly personal narrative, which may strike the audience as warm and friendly, or disconcertingly informal. Certain termites, for instance, build “rather charming little nests of mud that look like fat-stemmed toadstools about 35cm high that, if painted red and yellow would look just right alongside some plastic gnomes in an English suburban garden”. He also opines that few crickets sing “in the fitted kitchens of the smart bungalows now populating the land”.
Although Hansell brings a wealth of personal observations to his discussion, some readers may find him distractingly discursive. In the chapter on the evolution of swallow and martin nests, the narrative wanders somehow to hummingbirds, spiders, garden peas, mice, parasitic wasps, grasshoppers, hairworms, the development of Victorian greenhouses and railway stations, yellow-jackets, termites and ants. There are also descriptions of Buffon, Lamarck (particularly his statue in the Jardin des Plantes), and Mendel (with a few pages on genotypes, phenotypes and dominance). I lost the thread. In the chapter on traps we are told a great deal about amino acids, proteoglycans, aerodynamic damping and hysteresis, but the original story (about caddis-fly traps, which are fascinating) somehow gets forgotten in the process.
Alas, the reader is not similarly distracted by diagrams and photos: there are fewer than two dozen illustrations in the book. The audience must depend on the author’s powers of description. Thus we are forced to imagine the internal structure of a beaver dam, the elaborate stepwise building of weaverbird nests, the remarkable repetitive structure of wasp nests, the intricate design of caddis-fly traps, and so on. But then the object of Hansell’s book is not so much to describe and explain as to argue that building behaviour in animals is innate and unintelligent; for this, illustrations might be counterproductive.
Hansell’s primary target is cognitive ethology, and in particular the late Donald Griffin. He takes umbrage at the title of an uncited article: “Thinking about thinking”. Even as loosely defined as Griffin had in mind, apparently “thought” should be a forbidden term. Hansell’s strategy for arguing that animals are intellectually dead is three-pronged. The first step is to discount the abilities of animals on the basis of brain volume. The second is to invoke Occam’s razor (the simplest possible explanation is likely to be – or for some, is inevitably – the correct one). The last step is to describe animals that fit the mindless-builder model.
Brain size, Hansell tells us, should lead “to certain expectations” – namely, that smaller animals are simple and have limited, stereotyped repertoires. Using this simple rule of thumb, we can apparently conclude thats ince female humans have, on average, significantly smaller brain volumes than males, their behaviour should be simpler and more stereotyped – one of Darwin’s few mistaken inferences. Humans, by the same token, should be less behaviourally elaborate than whales and elephants. In fact, it is relative brain volume that seems to matter. When researchers plot brain mass against weight for warm-blooded animals, the points cluster rather tightly around an upward-slanting line. On average, an animal weighing ten times as much has a brain about five times as heavy. All other things being equal, brain mass scales with the number of sensory receptors and muscles the animal possesses, and these increase more slowly than weight. (Cold-blooded animals generate a line of the precisely same slope, though they are able to make do with one-tenth the number of neurones. Insects, because so much of their nervous system is in ganglia outside the head, fall on a different line.)
This brain-to-mass relationship is the biological reason that female brains are smaller, while at least as intellectually potent as those of males. The generally accepted measure (one Hansell even cites when discussing bowerbirds) is the scaled ratio of brain volume to body weight. By this measure, animals with more brain mass than is predicted by the general trend (eg humans, porpoises and crows) stand out, as do those with a shortfall (opossums, for instance). Birds with the most elaborate bowers do indeed have the largest brain-to-body ratios.
Hansell is particularly unimpressed with social insects, including that epitome of all-round complexity, the honey bee. Bees may have astonishing memory, navigational abilities, the capacity to form concepts and cognitive maps, and the planet’s second most complex language, but we can ignore them because their brains are small. Their building behaviour is trivial, we are told: they build repetitive cells (except when they don’t) and use their own bodies to measure size (as, however, do almost all species, birds most especially). Spiders able to plan circuitous routes to prey, or others that make and carry portable trap nets to ambush their victims, suffer from the same disqualifier: small body size, and thus small brains. By this measure, a book on animal building could be restricted to elephants and aquatic mammals – except that these creatures do not build anything.
Occam’s razor can be a useful check on any tendency to formulate overly elaborate explanations of phenomena, but its utility in ethology has proved rather mixed. The behaviourist school of psychology, which held stultifying sway over the study of behaviour in the first six or seven decades of the twentieth century, “simplified” the analysis of humans and animals by eliminating any role for instinct and insight, instead explaining everything on the basis of learned associations – even the circulation of the blood.
One of Griffin’s main arguments was that a mindless devotion to Occam’s razor blinds us to unusual abilities in animals. The history of ethology is in large part a series of surprises, showing animals to be cleverer and better equipped than human imagination was prepared for. Fettered by the restrictive razor, who could have discovered that animals can have language, cognitive maps, echolocation, UV and polarized-light orientation, magnetic field navigation, social cognition, innovation, concept formation, self-awareness and even practise deceit?
A better measure of animal intelligence ought perhaps to be found in the behaviour that brains generate. Instances of apparently foolish builders are common (and not unknown even among humans), as are cases in which creatures simply follow a set of rote instructions. This is typical of animals living in predictable or unchallenging niches. Neurones are expensive to build and very costly to operate; selection will work to keep brain size to a minimum. But the more complex animals seem to have built on their inborn repertoires. The extra layers of cognitive flexibility involve learning, an ability to reorder and reorient innate components, and a capacity to innovate in what seem to be sensible ways.
Consider the beaver, a species with iconic status among animal builders. Hansell, armed with his sharp, ever-ready razor, dismisses them summarily. Being impressed by beaver achievements, we are told, depends on careless, uncritical anthropomorphism, an emotional response to plush fur and human-like behaviour. And yet why should human-like behaviour not be based on human-like creativity in some species? Surely some analysis of the building activities should precede dismissal of the species into cognitive outer darkness. Beavers, for instance, seem to have at least six alternative internal designs for dams (and, given how little this has been studied, probably many more); is Occam best served by assuming that there are at least six alternative programmes, or is it simpler to suppose that there is some element of evaluation and decision-making here, based on context and the availability of materials?
When beavers incorporate novel elements such as plywood sheets and plastic tarpaulins into dams, are their innate circuits misfiring or is there some basic level of understanding of the goal they are working towards that encourages flexibility? It seems worthwhile at least to explore these possibilities rather than dismiss outright Darwin’s suggestion of evolutionary continuity in mental processing. Alas, Occam’s razor has relentlessly sliced these paragraphs and pages from Mike Hansell’s book; the animals we read about are the helpless, hapless pawns of their instincts, blindly bumbling their way through life, incredibly lucky that the world is simple and unvarying enough to accommodate so many races of robots. How odd that natural selection has never worked to favour the sorts of cognitive prowess so evident in nearly all other classes of behaviour.
BUILT BY ANIMALS
The natural history of animal architecture
268pp. Oxford University Press. £16.99 (US $29.95).
978 0 19 920556 1
James Gould is Professor of Ecology at Princeton University. He is the author of Ethology: The mechanisms and evolution of behavior, 1982.
24 May 2008
“Her newfound connection to other living beings means that she is no longer interested in performing experiments on live rat brains”
…from today's New York Times:
….JILL BOLTE TAYLOR was a neuroscientist working at Harvard’s brain research center when she experienced nirvana.
But she did it by having a stroke.
On Dec. 10, 1996, Dr. Taylor, then 37, woke up in her apartment near Boston with a piercing pain behind her eye. A blood vessel in her brain had popped. Within minutes, her left lobe — the source of ego, analysis, judgment and context — began to fail her. Oddly, it felt great.
The incessant chatter that normally filled her mind disappeared. Her everyday worries — about a brother with schizophrenia and her high-powered job — untethered themselves from her and slid away.
Her perceptions changed, too. She could see that the atoms and molecules making up her body blended with the space around her; the whole world and the creatures in it were all part of the same magnificent field of shimmering energy.
“My perception of physical boundaries was no longer limited to where my skin met air,” she has written in her memoir, “My Stroke of Insight,” which was just published by Viking.
After experiencing intense pain, she said, her body disconnected from her mind. “I felt like a genie liberated from its bottle,” she wrote in her book. “The energy of my spirit seemed to flow like a great whale gliding through a sea of silent euphoria.”
While her spirit soared, her body struggled to live. She had a clot the size of a golf ball in her head, and without the use of her left hemisphere she lost basic analytical functions like her ability to speak, to understand numbers or letters, and even, at first, to recognize her mother. A friend took her to the hospital. Surgery and eight years of recovery followed.
Her desire to teach others about nirvana, Dr. Taylor said, strongly motivated her to squeeze her spirit back into her body and to get well.
This story is not typical of stroke victims. Left-brain injuries don’t necessarily lead to blissful enlightenment; people sometimes sink into a helplessly moody state: their emotions run riot. Dr. Taylor was also helped because her left hemisphere was not destroyed, and that probably explains how she was able to recover fully.
Today, she says, she is a new person, one who “can step into the consciousness of my right hemisphere” on command and be “one with all that is.”
To her it is not faith, but science. She brings a deep personal understanding to something she long studied: that the two lobes of the brain have very different personalities. Generally, the left brain gives us context, ego, time, logic. The right brain gives us creativity and empathy. For most English-speakers, the left brain, which processes language, is dominant. Dr. Taylor’s insight is that it doesn’t have to be so.
Her message, that people can choose to live a more peaceful, spiritual life by sidestepping their left brain, has resonated widely.
….Her newfound connection to other living beings means that she is no longer interested in performing experiments on live rat brains, which she did as a researcher.…
.…"I believe that the more time we spend choosing to run the deep inner peace circuitry of our right hemispheres, the more peace we will project into the world, and the more peaceful our planet will be.”….
22 May 2008
Immigration raids terrify kids, House is told
Zachary Coile, Chronicle Washington Bureau
Wednesday, May 21, 2008
(05-21) 04:00 PDT Washington - --
When federal agents raided a San Rafael apartment complex in the early morning hours of March 6, 2007, searching for 30 undocumented immigrants, they left behind a lot of terrified children, Kathryn Gibney, the principal at nearby San Pedro Elementary School, said.
The agents shone flashlights in the children's faces. Several parents were handcuffed in front of their kids. The next day 40 of the school's 400 students were too frightened to show up for class, and others arrived in tears. A year later, Gibney said the effects continue with higher absenteeism, lower test scores and increased counseling for her students.
"They left behind them a trail of fear," Gibney told lawmakers Tuesday in a hearing before a House Education and Labor subcommittee.
Petaluma Democratic Rep. Lynn Woolsey called the hearing in response to growing anxiety among immigrants and the schools, churches and social service agencies that serve them, that stepped-up raids by the Department of Homeland Security's Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency are coming at a high cost to children. Woolsey said she is considering legislation that would require the agency to follow guidelines to protect children.
Earlier this month, the Oakland Unified School District sent uniformed officers into an elementary school in East Oakland to reassure parents and students after reports of ICE vans in the area. The agency insisted it was not targeting the school, but seeking adults in the area who had been named in arrest warrants.
Child required to translate
Gibney cited another incident on May 8 when federal agents stopped a father walking his daughter to Bahia Vista Elementary School in San Rafael. Since the agents could not communicate with the father, the second-grader had to serve as a translator. The father, who was undocumented, was arrested.
The arrests are part of a nationwide crackdown on undocumented immigrants - first dubbed "Operation Return to Sender" in 2006 - that targets people who ignore deportation orders. Since October, the agency has apprehended more than 19,000 people nationwide, including 1,620 in Northern California.
Virginia Kice, an ICE spokeswoman in California, said people often mistakenly believe federal agents target schools or churches, which she said they virtually never do. Almost all the arrests occur at home.
"We do that because our goal is officer safety and the safety of people we interact with," Kice said. "I don't know of any situation where we have targeted a school."
But lawmakers at Tuesday's hearing said they fear the impacts on children even if the arrests occur away from schools. About 4.7 million children in the United States have at least one parent who is undocumented; two-thirds of those kids were born in the United States and are citizens, according to federal figures.
Children swept up
Woolsey said children are often getting swept up in the arrests. She pointed to the case of Kebin Reyes, who was 6 when his father was apprehended during the March 2007 raid in San Rafael. Reyes, whose father is his sole parent in the United States, was detained for 10 hours in an ICE field office when his father was arrested. (The American Civil Liberties Union and the San Francisco Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights is now suing the agency, alleging that it violated Kebin's constitutional rights.) Kebin is a citizen, but his father is not.
Woolsey said after a raid this month at the Agriprocessors Inc. meat processing plant in Postville, Iowa - the largest workplace raid in U.S. history, which netted 389 arrests - a nun at a local Catholic church told the committee that many children were sleeping in the pews, fearing more raids.
"She said that most of these children are not going to school," Woolsey said. "They are traumatized and fearful."
James Spero, the deputy assistant director of ICE's Office of Investigations, told lawmakers the agency tries to carry out the raids in a humane way. He noted that after the Postville raid, 62 of those arrested were given a conditional release for "humanitarian purposes" - in most cases because they were the sole caregiver to children.
But other officials criticized the agency for failing to alert state and local authorities when they carry out raids. Simon Romo, chief counsel of New Mexico Child Protective Services, said he believes the raids are causing severe trauma for children when their parents are suddenly pulled out of their lives.
"Children need to see their parents," Romo testified. "The fact that they are told they are OK is insufficient. ... When you remove a parent from the life of a child, you leave them wondering. You set off these bombs that will go off throughout the rest of their development."
Republicans back ICE
But some Republicans rallied to the defense of the agency, saying ICE officials should not be blamed for the consequences of enforcing the law.
"A person who entered the country illegally or overstays their visa - they are the ones who are really putting those children in jeopardy by their own actions, and they should take those children into account," said Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Santa Clarita (Los Angeles County).
Janet Murguia, president of the National Council of La Raza, a Latino civil rights group, said lawmakers should focus on crafting a more humane immigration policy that focuses on protecting children and keeping families united while still enforcing the law.
"I don't think anyone is suggesting we should punish these kids for the actions of their parents," she said. "We're not looking at whether we enforce these laws, but how we enforce these laws."
This article appeared on page A - 4 of the San Francisco Chronicle
21 May 2008
Joel, the oldest of three children, seemed unusual early on, was nearly deaf in his right ear by age 3 and was diagnosed with autism when he was 12.
"It wasn't being diagnosed every 20 minutes back then," said Schuman, 58, an internist who works with substance abusers.
Autism, a complex developmental disability caused by a neurological disorder, interferes with the normal functioning of the brain and affects a person's ability to convey thoughts and interact with others.
"Joel has never really said the word," Schuman said. "He usually doesn't want to talk about it." […] In his letter supporting Sidney's application to Cal, Cook described him as an extraordinary student who "proved time and again the ability to grasp and apply difficult concepts from cultural studies, anthropology and gender studies to music" and overcame "enormous difficulty" to succeed academically. How did he do it? "At some point I realized I needed to work more or give up," Sidney said. As a result, he adapts, compensates and labors fiendishly. For example, he taped his classes and listened to the recordings afterward, taking notes along the way. […]
In his letter supporting Sidney's application to Cal, Cook described him as an extraordinary student who "proved time and again the ability to grasp and apply difficult concepts from cultural studies, anthropology and gender studies to music" and overcame "enormous difficulty" to succeed academically.
How did he do it?
"At some point I realized I needed to work more or give up," Sidney said.
As a result, he adapts, compensates and labors fiendishly. For example, he taped his classes and listened to the recordings afterward, taking notes along the way. […]
UC grad is special - and very able
by Patricia Yollin, San Francisco Chronicle, 21 May 2008
20 May 2008
19 May 2008
"I'll be the first to admit about being bitter over alot of streets being done these days... never even got into all that Banksy stuff either... although I know the deal with it all... On the level of giving someone the benefit of the doubt, I am feeling this guys stuff. Alhough i've only seen 2 spots he's done within a 2 block radious, I look forward to seeing more."
Go-ahead for Iceland's whale hunt
By Richard Black
Environment correspondent, BBC News website
Iceland's commercial whale hunt is set to begin, after the government granted a small minke quota on Monday.
Whalers had been seeking a quota of about 100, but ministers settled on 40, which they say is commercially viable.
The decision came after weeks of delay, reportedly because of disagreements within government.
Environmental groups said the decision would further damage the Icelandic economy which is already badly affected by the international debt crisis.
The decision was expected a month ago, and whalers had been asking for a swift decision so they could begin hunting.
Finally, the govenment gave the go-ahead on Monday morning, and whalers said they would launch as soon as possible.
"It all depends on the weather, but if the weather is good then we hunt tomorrow (Tuesday) morning," said Gunnar Bergmann Jonsson, head of the minke whaling association.
The government insists its decision is commercial, based on the market for minke meat within Iceland.
"We issued... a minke quota which limits the catch to 40 animals, and that's similar to the amount that was caught last year," said Iceland's whaling commissioner Stefan Asmundsson.
There is no quota for fin whales, another target of Icelandic vessels.
Mr Jonsson confirmed that meat from last year's minke catch had been sold. But he told BBC News his members hoped eventually for a larger annual quota - nearer to the 100 they had requested this year.
"We caught 45 whales last year and sold it all, so if we can sell all the meat from 40 animals this time I believe we can get more quota, but we'll see how it goes."
This will be the third hunting season since Iceland resumed its commercial programme in 2006.
Its annual catch is much smaller than those of Norway and Japan, but its hunt is nevertheless controversial, partly because it had ceased operations and partly because in some peoples' eyes the policy conflicts with the image Iceland often portrays as an unspoiled, ecologically conscious "green" nation.
"We strongly urge the Icelandic government to rethink this decision," said Robbie Marsland of the International Fund for Animal Welfare (Ifaw).
"The resumption of commercial whaling could prove to be extremely damaging to the already fragile Icelandic economy and its international reputation."
The economy is already struggling owing to large borrowing by its three major banks. Inflation is runing above 11%, and interest rates are up to 15%.
Mr Marsland suggested that the growing industry of whale-watching could be an important asset to Iceland in this difficult period.
"We encourage the government to act now to protect this multi-million-pound industry and its wider economic interests."
The delay in announcing the minke quota has strengthened rumours that some government departments, notably the foreign ministry, shared some of Ifaw's views.
But the decision remains in the gift of the fisheries ministry, which believes there is no ecological reason to cancel a hunt for 40 minkes when the population in the north Atlantic is believed by the International Whaling Commission (IWC) to number about 174,000.
"There can be no question that this is a sustainable activity," said Mr Asmundsson.
A voice, charisma, compassion -
Juanes delivers it all with love
by Chuy Varela, Special to The Chronicle
Colombian rocker Juanes added a few degrees to a sweltering day as he brought his love fiesta to San Jose's cavernous HP Pavilion on Friday night. Performing more than two hours' worth of his greatest hits and songs from his latest album, "La Vida ... Es Un Ratico" ("Life is but a moment"), he left the near-capacity audience charmed and enlightened.
Athletic, energetic and in tremendously good voice, the show was the last leg of a world tour that concluded during the weekend with his participation in the Latin America in Solidarity Action benefit concert for children in Mexico City alongside Shakira, Maná, Paulina Rubio and many others.
The charisma Juan Esteban Aristizábal (his real name) commands is genuine and his humble guy-next-door image compares to Bruce Springsteen's in its realism. His dress (striped shirt and gray pants) is unpretentious, but it's the depth of his lyrics and the themes he touches that soulfully deliver messages that empower his fans.
"A Dios le Pido" ("I Ask God"), the big 2002 hit from his "Un Día Normal" album, opened the show and brought the crowd to its feet, hooting and hollering as he hit the stage. A metallic flower of lights served as a backdrop and created colorful kaleidoscopic sequences throughout the evening that enhanced the mood and excitement of the pieces.
From jump, the largely Latino audience was on its feet singing along and dancing. The crowd quickly grasped the verses of "No Creo en el Jamás" ("I Do Not Believe in Never"), from the new album, and gyrated in a collective groove, singing verses about the importance of picking yourself up if you get knocked down.
The magic of Juanes, who is gracious to his fans and constantly thanks them, rests on songs that express sentiments that relate to everyday life struggles and range from relationship woes to situations in his fans' native countries. He never gets preachy, though, about the political aspects of his music and says he is just trying to create, "una fiesta en la casa del amor" ("a party in a house of love").
His hard-driving, six-piece combo laid down a musical foundation that was like clockwork, with very little deviation from the original recordings. Juanes is a pretty good guitarist and picked some potent solos on his sunburst Fender Stratocaster that got him a few jolts of applause throughout the night.
He slowed things down with "Te Busqué" ("I Searched for You") and took off his guitar to pace the stage and its runway extension. He slapped hands, crooned and stopped for the cell phone paparazzi to snap his picture. From there, he rolled through familiar songs that kept the party moving.
The political insinuations of some of his music are idealistic but meaningful. "Bandera de Manos" ("A Flag of Hands") was dedicated to farmworkers, indigenous peoples and immigrants. "We are tired of stories of defeat and broken promises, let us uplift our soul and voice," said the song in Spanish.
The most moving piece of the night was "Minas Piedras" ("Land mines"), an intimate piece with piano, guitar and voice. It was coupled with a slide show that transmitted images of land mine victims from around the world. The faces of amputees, from children to the elderly, left you with sadness and awareness about a problem that has plagued his Colombian homeland, which is embroiled in a lingering civil war.
He concluded the performance with his megahit, "La Camisa Negra," that had the room in a whirlwind as the house went black. Shouts of "otra" (another song) engulfed the arena and lasted more than five minutes before he and the band returned to the stage for 20 more minutes of music that ended, surprisingly, with an old-school salsa tune by Joe Arroyo titled, "Rebelion."
Given his many good deeds, from trying to broker peace deals between warring factions in Colombia, to the ALAS concerts in Mexico, Juanes proved Friday night he is mega-global star with conscience. One of the most influential Latin American artists today, Juanes is a high priest of Latin rock who blesses his audiences with hope and the inspiration to dream for a better world.