April 18, 2010 - April 11, 2010
Wednesday, March 25, 2009
the whole thing.
HUMP DAY DIVERSIONS
. 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
[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
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
. It's impossible to keep up with the array of bad things that
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
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
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
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:
Which means that Sauron's evil is of a particular, non
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
. 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
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
," 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
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
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
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
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
, please put it aside. There's a gentleness about him, and a
steely core, that 's been noted here before (scroll for Quigley
), 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.