Instapun*** Archive Listing

Archive Listing
June 24, 2010 - June 17, 2010

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

YouTube Wednesday:

Watch the whole thing.

. How many of you are inclined to disbelieve the bird knew what he was doing? And why would anyone be inclined to disbelieve? Because we have an impression from mainstream science that bird intelligence has been somehow measured and found wanting. You don't see birds listed up with there with primates, dolphins, dogs, and even rodents as smart critters. For example, here is what one innovative animal cognition researcher said about her own bird studies in a recent interview:

[INTERVIEWER]: In your book, you describe repeated examples of scientists and journals ignoring and discounting your results. Why do you think people are so resistant to the idea of bird intelligence? And have things improved?

PEPPERBERG: When I started my research, very few scientists studied any bird other than the pigeon, and used any technique other than operant conditioning. Pigeons did not perform very well compared to other animals (such as rats and nonhuman primates), and were thus considered to be lacking in intelligence; scientists extrapolated their findings to all birds. At the time, scientists didn't understand how the avian brain functioned, and thought it lacked any significant cortex. And, of course, when I began my research, some scientists started discounting much that had been done in the field of human-animal communication. So, when I started working with a parrot, and chose to use a nontraditional training method, few in the scientific community would give credit to [the parrot's] achievements.

All of the interview is interesting, so give it a read, but here's a fascinating account of the kinds of things Dr. Pepperberg has learned from her work with the parrot Alex.

[INTERVIEWER]: What do you think was Alex's most impressive cognitive feat?
PEPPERBERG: The work on the “zero-like” concept. He had shown that he could label the number of a subset of items in a heterogeneous mixture (for example, tell us the number of blue blocks in a mixture of red and blue balls and red and blue blocks), but we hadn't tested his comprehension of number. That task was important, because young children, at a particular stage in number learning, can label a set but can't, for example, remove a specific number of marbles from a big heap.

So we were testing him on number comprehension, again showing him heterogeneous mixtures of different numbers of objects of different colors (for instance, two blue keys, five purple keys, six green keys and asking, "What color is six?"). As was his wont, he was at about 90 percent accuracy on the first dozen or so trials, but we needed far more for statistical significance. The problem was that he just did not want to comply. He began to turn his back to us, throw the objects on the floor, or give us all the wrong answers and repeat the wrong answers so that, statistically, we knew he was avoiding the correct response. We started bribing him with candies and treats to get him to work. One day, in the midst of this, I'm testing him with a tray of three, four and six blocks of different colors, and I ask, "What color three?" He replies, "Five." At first, I was puzzled: there was no set of five on the tray. We repeat this interaction several times, and he consistently says, "Five." Finally, in frustration, I ask, "OK, what color five?" He says "none"! Not only had he transferred the use of "none" from a same-different task, where "none" was the response if nothing about two objects was indeed "same" or "different," to the absence of a numerical set, but he had also figured out how to manipulate me into asking him the question he wanted to answer!

uh, how many of us have never thought talking birds were using words as words? But this appears to be the case with Alex -- and with the parrot in the video above. Cool.

That would be all, but this is YouTube Wednesday, so here are some more parrots.

Maybe not just a clever trainer... And how about this one?

And, finally, some sad news relative to the research above:

I guess I'm the only one not talking about the press conference last night. Good for me.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Rational Evil

LOTR REDUX. It's impossible to keep up with the array of bad things that are happening. The American edifice is crumbling so fast that to pick out any one thing is tantamount to seeming trivial. The barbarian Russians are resurgent. The eternally anti-western Chinese are rattling their sabers. The North Koreans have kidnapped western journalists and are flagrantly testing missiles designed to carry their nukes. Obamanian overtures to Iran and Venezuela have been flung back in his face. Even the Europeans are stricken with fear that our tyro president will kill the once unstoppable American capitalist engine that sustained their flagging socialist economies for a generation.

And all of this is occurring invisibly, almost unremarked on by the American MSM, outside the bubble of domestic politics in which Obama plasters the airwaves with his jovial presence while he launches the most concerted attack ever mounted on the most essential of American principles -- that the nation is nourished by outstanding individuals, not a crushing, controlling government. He lambastes the very idea of profit and wealth as the elected head of nation which has done uniquely unselfish good by retaining its human virtues alongside its belief in the power of individual selves to dream individual dreams that enrich whole populations. His ideal is, apparently, the reverse. That a handful of enlightened leaders should do the dreaming for all of us and then effect their expert dream through the force of law, taxation, and regulatory control of the rest of us.

It's time to speak of evil. When your leaders are persuaded that self-annihilating policies are superior to a tradition that has resulted in unparalleled freedom and accomplishment, the word becomes relevant. The scene shown above is archetypal -- betrayal by the supposedly wise and their sudden ruthlessness in apparent contradiction to all that has gone before. But the scene is important for another reason, a far more important reason.

Isn't it intellectuals who love allegories? Intellectuals who write, produce, and dramatize them for the edification of us literal-minded plebeians? When Lord of the Rings won all those Oscars, wasn't there a lot of talk about its allegorical meaning, the symbolism of the ring and the atom bomb, the good of ordinary 'little people' like the hobbits versus the powerful war mongers who subjected us to the dread of nuclear annihilation? uh, yes, there was. And more than a few critics were happy to sign on to the idea that J. R. R. Tolkien had made his Middle Earth an allegory of the battle between Nazis and democracies in World War II.

But I've never seen any analysis of the scene above. Which is, in many ways, the most important scene in the entire trilogy of the Lord of the Rings. So forgive me if I spend a few moments talking about this scene. If you're intellectual enough to believe in allegories, you should probably be willing to entertain this discussion.

What's fascinating to me is that you never get to hear Saruman's argument. We're even misdirected away from what that argument might be by Gandalf's glib (and counter-intuitive) indictment, "When did Saruman the Wise abandon reason for madness?"

Surely, it is not madness to side with the winner. Just as surely, it is not reaon to argue that the small and helpless have the power to overthrow the powerful. Gandalf's position is one of faith and moral responsibility, and his outrage lies in the fact that the 'wisest' man he knows would succumb to some other line of thinking. But what is that line of thinking? We are never told. Evil is treated like some infection that randomly strikes the wise as well as the foolish. Saruman has simply gone nuts, as if his incredibly lengthy status as one of the wisest in his world is irrelevant to his seduction by Sauron.

But if you believe in allegory, the clues are there to be read, despite the facile elisions of the script. All the most powerful personalities in Lord of the Rings are tempted by the "one ring to rule them all." Boromir, Galadriel, even Gandalf the Grey are tempted by the ring, and not at all by its powers of destruction. Their temptations have to do with the power to do absolute good through absolute power. The source of their temptation is the very virtue which they wish to impress on the world as a whole.

But Saruman, as the wisest of wizards -- smarter by definition than all the other temptees -- is the one most easily and utterly seduced. Even though he lives in a tall unassailable tower indistinguishable from tenure and intellectual preeminence.Why would he be so so vulnerable? As I've already pointed out, it's an answer never given.

Except maybe it is. In ways that it takes time to think about. Am I the only one who is troubled by the similarity of names -- Sauron, Saruman? Tolkien was a scholar of ancient literature, specifically Anglo-Saxon literature, but he also was an Oxford don with deep knowledge of Greek and Latin. "Saur" is a Greek root, suggesting 'lizard' denotatively and 'cold-blooded' connotatively. 'Saruman' is an anagram of 'saur' plus 'man,' and 'Sauron' is 'saur' plus 'on,' about whose meaning we can only speculate. Although I think we're allowed to speculate because it stands so directly in contrast to 'Saruman.' We're allowed at least (particularly in the age of post-modern criticism) to propose a typically English (i.e., crossword) interpretation of the 'on' in Sauron. I propose 'Outside Nature.' Scoff all you want, but it fits. Saruman becomes 'cold-blooded man' and Sauron becomes 'cold-blooded outside nature," which could easily be an Anglo-Saxon locution for "reason."

Think about it. Even within the context of the Lord of the Rings, Sauron is not a force of nature but a manufactured thing. His power derives from a manufactured device. His evil is not synonymous with creation itself. Tolkien goes out of his way to give us that kind of confrontation as a stark contrast with the battle against Sauron and as a test of the good wizard Gandalf:

If there's a natural source of evil, here he is.

Which means that Sauron's evil is of a particular, non-natural kind. What can it be but the artificially made hell of reason itself?

So what was it that seduced Saruman the Wise? How about reason? He, like our compassionate liberals, is smarter than the accumulated decisions and values of ordinary folk. He's tired of the knowledge that he could make life better for everyone if they would only follow his prescriptions. He comes to believe there is an answer, which consists of ruling the small, the ignorant, the helpless, the insignificant. That right answer rightly dimiinishes the foolish choices of foolish people in favor of a superior power that can create the esthetic perfection of a system that operates rationally, efficiently, tightly from top to bottom. When the wasteful human emotions, pointless dreams, empty pleasures, and transitory aspirations have been squeezed from the system, what remains is a meticulous mathematical hierarchy that obeys the laws of logic: the smartest are in charge and the lesser ones are satisfactorily obedient. To the wise, the greatest wastefulness in nature is the noisy competition among the stupid to be part of something like a story when they're only terms in an equation.

There are only two conditions required for this kind of 'liberal' view of humanity to be correct. First, you have to win:


Second, you have to be truly, genuinely, authentically smarter than the people you're determined to rule:

Oops again. Sometimes, the victory dance becomes a step in the Resistance.

Unfortunately, nobody ever, in the whole of human history, has ever fulfilled the second condition.

And there's a hugely important literary basis for assessing the performance of any new messianic position. An analogy to consider. Obama is to the American tradition what the Grand Inquisitor is to Jesus Christ. If you still want to defend Obama after reading this, please stake your claim in the comments. And then I will absolutely kill you. (So do it. Please. I'm looking forward to it. Can't wait.)

Obama? I've already predicted everything he would do. Now he's doing it. If you would defend him, go to hell. This is the end.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

March Madness

TREADING WATER AGAIN. The only appropriate word right now is 'surreal.' The U.S. Treasury Department is an empty office building, the congress is having an epileptic fit about 0.01 percent of their own multi-trillion-dollar bank heist, and the president -- when he isn't attacking capitalism as a sinister Republican conspiracy -- is making campaign appearances on the Tonight Show and filling out brackets (whatever they are) for the NCAA basketball tournament. March Madness indeed.

Who is it exactly who expects us to believe that the AIG bonuses are the only money that's been wasted in the obscene orgy of government spending the malignantly destructive Obama administration has visited on the American people in the past two months? The congress that had no problem larding up an already grossly prodigal budget with $9 billion worth of special interest earmarks is righteously indignant about $165 million in bonuses they specifically authorized in their own legislation? The greed that's a necessary credential in the parasites who levy taxes is a mortal sin in the private sector that actually creates jobs and wealth. I get it. I can't wait for the federal legislation that bans bonuses and regulates salaries in the rest of corporate America. I guess the good news is that given the breakneck speed of Obama's legislative agenda, that bill will be on his desk in another three weeks.

And what are conservatives doing to stand up for our nation and our way of life? The eggheads are writing careful, measured essays on topics like "epistemological modesty," while the mere politicians whose job it it is to represent our interests are lining up in the same AIG gangbang that makes the Democrats so repulsively hypocritical to watch that even the braindead lib  Shepard Smith is outraged about it. As I said. Surreal.

Anybody else feel like forgetting March altogether and waitng for this perfect storm of idiocy to exhaust itself before we pay it any more attention? If you like college basketball, you're welcome to that as your consolation. But some of you are just as sick of spinnaker pants as we are of leftwing balloonheads. For them, I have a very modest diversion to offer.

Yes, it is possible to avoid basketball and American Idol and the next Obamessiah press conference. I can offer you what amounts to a secret television series that will soothe you and calm you down. Here you go. Twelve hours of surcease.

I'm sure some of you already know about the Jesse Stone movies, but if you don't, take a chance and rent them from Netflix or Blockbuster. I know they're not for every taste and younger viewers in particular may find them somewhat too deliberately paced. But that's what makes them therapeutic at a time when all hell is breaking loose and the pace of our public life is revving up to stark insanity.

Jesse Stone is a small town police chief played with quiet dignity by Tom Selleck. The charm of these movies is subtle but strong. Stone is flawed yet unsentimentally wise, believably principled, and most of all a man, though not in any stereotypical macho way. His first life was as a Los Angeles cop. His marriage soured, he drank too much, and he lost everything he cared about. The movies deal with his second life in a small Massachusetts town, where he lives alone with his dog, a bottle of scotch he rations to himself between late-night calls from the shallow ex-wife he's still in love with, and the job he takes as seriously as good men always do. The reason he's not a loser is that he knows exactly who he is and if he is in some ways sad, he's not sorrowful or lost. He understands that his wounds enable him to care more deeply about other people, even if they regard him as remote and just a little dumb. A younger girlfirend informs that he's the simplest person she's ever known -- not entirely a compliment -- and subsequently asks him if he's ever killed anyone. He answers, "Yes."

"Do you want to tell me about it?"


But she persists and he tells her about a man with a machete and the physical sense of fear. Then the shooting part. She wants to know if he couldn't have wounded the man, shot him in the leg. Stone tells her, matter-of-factly, "You always shoot to kill. It's not like the movies. There's no time. You aim for the center of the body and hope you hit it."

Then she observes, "Maybe that's what being a cop brings out in a man."

And he replies, "Maybe it's that I'm a cop because I am that kind of man."

That's really the essence of the series. Stone knows that life is a life-and-death situation, and he possesses a sense of duty and the bravery of a man who knows his capabilities without the bravado of ego. The plots have everything to do with character and just enough action and danger to create suspense, but the best moments have to do with Stone's minimalist methods for effecting justice. He can't be bullied, but he almost never raises his voice. There's a scene where the town council querulously importunes him to allocate his small police force their way, and he tersely refuses. They remind him that they have the power to fire him. He tells them, "You do. But you can't tell me what to do."

The Massachusetts setting -- a spare hilly town and Stone's lonely rented house on the waterfront -- reinforces both the ordinariness of life and the beauty of the ongoing tension between loss and life. In other words, it's hauntingly real.

That's why I'm recommending this right now. The writing is fine, the supporting cast routinely excellent, and Selleck seems completely at home in his part. If your appraisal of him dates back to the noise and over-the-top teevee-ness of Magnum P.I., please put it aside. There's a gentleness about him, and a steely core, that 's been noted here before (scroll for Quigley Down Under), and this ongoing series of movies is the best thing he's ever done.

He has a stolid golden retriever for a companion. The eyes are limpid and knowing. You can imagine your blood pressure subsiding just by having this dog around. That's what these movies do. (Here's a trailer featuring both Selleck and the Golden. Don't pay any attention to the other bang-bang trailers. These aren't rapid-fire procedurals.) Give them a chance and I think you'll feel better for it. You might even make it through the middle of April without stroking out.

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