Wednesday, October 28, 2015

The bird, the crab, the eggs, the blood, and the ends of the earth

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, natural history, horseshoe crabs, red knots, migration, ecology, environment

For anyone who lives along Delaware Bay or the Delaware River, there are two main choices for a day at the beach or shore. The local terms are "Delaware beach" and "Jersey shore". Having sampled both, I found I love the northern beaches of Delaware the best. Beach towns and parks from Rehoboth Beach down to Fenwick Island, and on to Ocean City, MD, are great fun, but we enjoy Cape Henlopen, Delaware's northernmost Atlantic beach, the most.

Those who visit the Cape in late Spring, near the full moon in May or earliest June, can witness an amazing spectacle right out of the geologic past: the spawning of the horseshoe crabs. These trilobite-like critters, bigger than dinner plates, and little changed in bodily form for 400 million years, crawl ashore by the thousands to mate and lay eggs in the sand. Right along with them, running among them, little sandpipers called Red Knots pick and probe in the sand for the nourishing eggs. Knots are not the only egg-eating shorebirds, but at times they are the most numerous, as this photo shows.

At both Cape Henlopen and Cape May, NJ, and at many sandy beaches that line Delaware Bay, crabs lay eggs and shorebirds feed frantically. The Knots are particularly frantic. They've just crossed the western Atlantic from northeastern South America, and they have several thousand more miles to go to their Arctic breeding grounds. They have an amazing weight-gain and muscle-building metabolism that allows them to eat half their weight daily, and to double their weight, mainly by adding flight muscle and a layer of fat, in just a couple of weeks. They will lose most of that added weight flying 3,000 or more miles north by mid-June.

The Western Atlantic Flyway for Red Knots begins at Tierra del Fuego, Chile, the "uttermost part of the Earth" at the southern tip of South America. It ends at the other "uttermost part of the Earth" in northern Canada. That is, in the March-to-July time frame. Six months later, it is the same route in reverse.

Think of it: little birds that weigh only a couple of ounces, fueled by a few ounces of shellfish (on South American coasts) and horseshoe crab eggs (on North American coasts), make a journey that we bulky humans find harrowing and quite expensive (at current Coach rates, flying from Punta Arenas, Chile to Iqaluit, Canada costs $2,625 one way, with four stops to change planes). The birds do this twice yearly.

Deborah Cramer, as she writes in The Narrow Edge: A Tiny Bird, an Ancient Crab, and an Epic Journey, made that trip just once, to see the Red Knot in all its habitats. The airline fares were the least of the expenses. There are no hotels near Bahia Lomas, and it takes almost as long to go that last 80 miles (130 km) from Punta Arenas by truck and boat, as it took to get to Punta Arenas from Massachusetts. She had to depend on an invitation from scientists who take advantage of an oil company's camp. Similar "camp-out" style dwellings awaited her on Southampton Island, in northern Hudson Bay, Canada. I presume she had hotels to stay in along the Delaware Bay and other mid-journey stopovers.

The book's entertaining travelogue provides one level of reading pleasure. But most importantly, it shows the interlocking lives of creatures of air and sea that actually affect human health throughout the world. Horseshoe crabs, it turns out, are a bountiful source of several benefits, and the most important is safeguarding our medicines.

Several generations ago, horseshoe crabs were harvested by the millions for bait and fertilizer. Better sources of fertilizer since the mid-1900's reduced the carnage somewhat, but by then their population was probably no more than 5% of what it had been. Their spawning runs were once legendary, with their little green eggs feeding tens to hundreds of millions of shorebirds, and still lying in heaps along the beaches. The shore birds now, seemingly abundant to our impoverished eyes, number less than a percent what they once did. Not only are there fewer crabs, they lay fewer eggs, ultimately because of a curious property of their blue blood.

Horseshoe crabs, and large arthropods in general, do not have as sophisticated an immune system as we and all mammals have. But horseshoe crabs in particular have a very sensitive clotting factor that engulfs certain bacteria, called gram negative bacilli, and deactivates the toxins they release. The metabolic products of gram negative bacteria are toxic to us, and cause fevers in even very small amounts. Their presence indicates bacterial contamination of medical products, so it is important that every IV kit, every serum, vaccine and other injectable medication be tested. Once there was a "rabbit test", but now the clotting factor in the blood of horseshoe crabs is used; it works ten times better.

Horseshoe crabs are captured, bled of about 1/3 of their blood, and returned to their native waters. A product called LAL is isolated from the blood, which is blue because rather than the iron in our kind of blood, theirs contains copper. Every time you've had a needle stuck in you for any reason, somewhere along the way the IV or hypo kit, and probably the medication also, were tested with LAL. Without it, about a third of the time the treatment itself would cause a fever lasting a day or two, and possibly a deadly reaction.

Female horseshoe crabs are bigger than their mates, so you can get more blood from them. But a crab that has been bled will be disoriented for days or weeks when she is returned to the sea, and will usually produce fewer eggs that year. A certain number are known to die before they are returned. Even more must be dying after return. A century ago, the usual sight was that each female crab was accompanied by one or sometimes two males as she came ashore to lay her eggs. Now it is common to see four to six males surrounding each female.

States such as North Carolina have banned the taking of horseshoe crabs for any reason other than this medical one. Nobody really needs them for bait any more, but some fishermen find it\\they are easier to gather than other bait fish, so there is legislative resistance to similar bans elsewhere. Researchers have devised several ways to use LAL that are from four to twenty times more efficient. But until the FDA (and similar bodies in other nations) rules upon the new tests, it is illegal to use them.

We soon may have no choice. Horseshoe crabs' numbers continue to decrease throughout the western Atlantic. A similar Asian crab species apparently cannot be used to produce LAL because of other toxins in its blood. And the birds? They are of no use to the crab. But they are of use to us. Their abundance, or scarcity, is a signal we had best not ignore. As the population of crabs declines, so does that of many species of shore bird, not just the Knots. And other populations are also affected. Large fish and seals that eat horseshoe crabs have turned in desperation to other prey, such as the famed Delaware Blue Crab. The price of Blue Crabs is increasing as a result. So it the price of your medicine, as it gets harder to gather enough crabs to meet an ever increasing demand for LAL, particularly as China Westernizes its economy and culture.

Doing something the cheapest way is not always, or even usually, the right way. Horseshoe crabs may be OK as a bait fish, but there are numerous alternatives. When the health of every human depends on them, is it permissible to use them for bait? Researchers find it hard to synthesize LAL, but it ought not be impossible. Sure, it'll cost a few millions to produce the first gram of synthetic LAL, but once the method is known, the price will drop and drop until it is cheaper than drawing blue blood from crabs. But will that price cutoff be reached because technology improves, or because crab capture and bleeding become so costly that natural LAL drives the cost of an IV kit to $1,000 and a flu shot is not $35 but $350?

And what of the birds? Will the loss of the Red Knot matter? Did the loss of the Passenger Pigeon matter? After 1914, when Martha the pigeon died, this marvelous bird species was lost forever. What else happened? At one time, they ate so many acorns and other forest nuts that there were fewer mice and other seed-eating small mammals. Now instead of millions of pigeons, we have billions more mice. One critter that inhabits mice is the "deer tick". So there are many, many more of them. Young ticks feast on mouse blood. Then they drop off and molt a time or two. Next they look for a larger host. They usually find deer, but a human will do. Then what happens? Lyme disease! Lyme disease was almost unknown before 1970. That shows that the burgeoning mouse numbers are only part of the equation. More and more suburbs being built into forests is another.

We don't know what other links are in the chain that includes Red Knots and Horseshoe Crabs. It is more of a mesh, anyway, like chain mail. Life is an unending Tetris game. Blocks drop and we fend them off. So does every other species. Eventually the stack fills the box and it is "Game Over". For many species, we are part of that Tetris game, not only adding extra falling blocks, but throwing them down faster and faster. Every species lost is irretrievable. You may not see the beauty in the horseshoe crab, but to the right kind of eye, the crab and the bird have equal beauty, and they are both of great value.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

They thought they knew China - NOT

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, business, business practices, entrepreneurs, memoirs

I have about all the entrepreneurial talent of a house cat. I've been in business a couple of times and managed to come away with my skin intact, but not much else. From time to time I like to read of remarkable business success. I suppose I'm looking for some secret or effective method. But I must confess, so far the value of such books to me is almost purely as entertainment.

I had a supervisor many years ago who would often speak of having a "business reason" for doing something. One day I asked her, "What is a 'business reason'?" She said, "It is something people are willing to pay you to do." Though her emphasis was on the word "something", I realize that my own business troubles arose more from the "you" part, that is, the "me" part. Maybe they'd pay "someone" to do that something, but somehow, rare it was to find someone who would pay "me" to do it. Simply put, I couldn't attract customers.

I've just read Alibaba's World: How a Remarkable Chinese Company is Changing the Face of Global Business by Porter Erisman, who was an executive with the company from 2000 to 2008. Clearly, Jack Ma, the English teacher who founded Alibaba, knows how to attract customers. His key to attracting the largest number of online customers in the world's most populous country, starting before most of them were online, has been his knowledge of the Chinese way of thinking and of doing business.

Just to give one example that I think I understand a little. Midway in the rise of Alibaba, Inc. to dominance in China's e-commerce scene, Jack Ma very deliberately took on eBay. Part of it was psychological jousting, which induced the eBay CEO, Meg Whitman, to publicly react and back the company into a corner. That also garnered lots of free publicity. But a bigger part was that eBay had simply cloned its US-based business as a China-facing portal, presumably with translated text (the book doesn't happen to mention so, but it is a logical assumption). They got some business because they were the only game in town. But Americans and Chinese think differently (I've learned that first-hand, having been very active in a church that is home to many Chinese-born Americans and their children). In particular, Americans are not just comfortable doing business at arms' length, so to speak; they practically demand it. But the Chinese want to get to know their opposite number and establish a relationship of trust before they will do business. So the Alibaba B2B sales portal made communication between buyer and seller easy, including a chat feature and easy ways of getting into face-to-face contact if they wished.

Actually, eBay does allow a buyer to contact the seller, such as for asking a question, and I've taken advantage of that. But because it isn't obvious, most people don't know it is possible. And Chat? No way, still. Considering that Alibaba is a bit over 20 years old, I think I can detect their influence in the American online marketplace. Many e-commerce sites have chat and contact features that are not just right up front, sometimes they can be pushy.

Alibaba is now bigger than eBay and Amazon combined. How big will it grow? The Chinese economy has stumbled since the book went to press, but with 1,300 million people, all rapidly climbing the learning curve of capitalist markets, China has the potential to dominate global trade. Jack Ma declares he crafted Alibaba to last 80 years, and later revised that to 102 years, so it would have a presence in three centuries. Long-term thinking is required for long-term results. He is also a creator, less of an overt competitor. He knows you cannot win a race while looking over your shoulder.

The book isn't a how-to manual. If you want to do what Jack Ma did, you have to be Jack Ma. But with most of the world's commerce passing through small (and smallish) businesses at some point or other, lots of folks have come up with a way that works for them, enough of the time, to keep them solvent. Few grow so large. Few need to. Alibaba's World is a glimpse at some of the turns in the road that led to one company that got very big, and not as fast as you might think, but fast enough.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Emily Post with a sidearm and an attitude

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, advice, etiquette, humor

In their efforts to avoid this or that social faux pas, our grandmothers could rely on the advice of Emily Post (and see the EP Institute), our mothers on Amy Vanderbilt, and a more recent generation on Miss Manners (the MM website). I write from the perspective of a Baby Boomer. If you are a Millennial or Gen-Xer, add a generation or two to the above. Also, even Miss Manners is getting dated; if your favorite band is more recent than Foo Fighters, where do you turn for etiquette advice?

There is a whole lot more to etiquette than table manners. And about half the country feels left out anyway: The Posts and Vanderbilts seem to be all about how to tell the salad fork from the shrimp fork, whether to wear black or white tie, and when a typed thank-you note is OK rather than a handwritten note (using a fountain pen on scented stationery). You know, stuff for effete, elitist northerners and their California wannabees. What about the real people in the real country, and especially, the South?

Hardly anybody drove in Emily Post's day. She had scant advice for chauffeurs. Advice about courtesy on-the-road has ticked along at a low level since about 1950, but nobody heard of road rage until the middle 1990's. Then, dress standards are so different now, I've never been to an event where black tie or white tie would have been de rigeur. When the DuPont Co. began allowing "casual Fridays" in the early 1990's, someone asked the boss, "Are blue jeans OK?" He said, "Yeah, as long as you wear the ones you'd wear to the barn dance, not the ones you wear in the barnyard."

Fast-forward another thirty years. Is a tie needed at a funeral? Are flip-flops OK going through TSA at the airport, or is it better to wear slip-ons? What constitutes PDA these days: hand-holding used to be verboten, but now walking along with a hand down each other's behind is almost expected. What do you say when the boss at work practically shouts all kinds of private matters into his telephone, with the door open? (I've had that one) Can you get away with unfriending someone who posts about a zillion dirty jokes every day, with the Visibility set to Public, so your friends, and their friends, see them on your news feed? Because, you know, can't people tell when they've been unfriended? (Only by looking to see if you are still on their friend list. All better?)

Celia Rivenbark to the rescue! Being a Carolinian, she has a perspective a bit different from your average Bostonian or San Franciscan. A bit? Who am I kidding? Her book is titled rude bitches make me tired; slightly profane and entirely logical answers to modern etiquette dilemmas. Does that give you a clue? I'd say the word "slightly" is an understatement.

Her answer about avoiding road rage is entirely logical. Don't engage. When your Mom warns that the other guy may have a gun (and the other gal may have one also), Ms Rivenbark writes, "In the South, because we are all, frankly, packin', this is not an entirely baseless fear…" So in her chapter on driving, she advocates courtesy in all directions: to the jerk who cut you off, or to the idiot who swoops by on the right shoulder when you have your right blinker clicking for a turn; to someone going too slow, because they may have missed a turn and are looking for a way to recover (and don't have GPS); and particularly to the police. She advocates obsequious (but not obnoxious), sweet courtesy to the police. It's gotten her a warning when a citation was what she'd earned. Courtesy in general isn't just to make things go smoother. It can extend your life.

You could put a lot of the advice in a capsule titled, "Suck it up and don't be a weenie." Some people really are rude, but more are simply clueless. Learn to tell them apart; to the one you can be rude right back and walk away, while the other may benefit from gentle, frank instruction. Most life situations shouldn't be contests. The only sure thing you'll get from engaging in a pissing contest is a lot of pee going places it shouldn't.

One thing this author is not: PC. PC is prissy. She ain't prissy. PC is for the timid. What does timidity get you? Heartburn. How about dilemmas like, "Let's all split the check evenly", when you know George is going to have a steak-and-lobster, Annette will have Chateaubriand, and you just wanted a shrimp salad and a cola. Or maybe everyone is having wine and you are a teetotaler. You need to think ahead. Be prepared to say, "I know my entree and drink will total $12, and I'll throw in a couple of bucks for the tip. Here's my $14 right now." Set it beside your plate, and when it's time to leave, leave: "Gotta go. Great lunch. The McFarland contract is awaiting my attention." Do you really need friends who can't handle that? I don't!

My favorite Q/A in the whole book comes on page 105, which I'll reproduce in its entirety. It deals with two irksome issues at once:
Question: A couple of moms in our play group have said they have no intention of immunizing their children, because they believe this can lead to all sorts of problems. What do you think?

I think your play group needs to not tell these moms where y'all are meeting next time. If they get pissy about it, just say you've renamed your little group from Mothers' Morning Out to something more catchy, some think like the Our Kids Don't Need Your Nineteenth-Century Deadly Diseases group.

If they act offended, tell them that while you respect their decision to subject their children to whooping cough, measles, and other long-dormant delights, you prefer to live in a safer, saner world where these diseases have very nearly been eradicated.
Fresh from North Carolina, where the phrase "You need a slap upside the head" was probably coined, advice that is tailor made for today's folks and today's dilemmas. Tons'o fun, too.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Hedwig would approve

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, birds, owls, natural history, memoirs

I don't really know much about owls, but I know more than I did a few days ago. I just finished reading The House of Owls by Tony Angell, a fascinating mini-memoir about living with owls nesting in the yard, and a great explanation of the lives of owls in all their variety. About half the book is narrative descriptions and anecdotes about the 19 species of owl found in the United States.

Tony Angell is a premier sculptor, painter and sketcher of animals and birds, particularly owls. The book includes about 100 of his drawings. During a long career that included much work in wildlife rehabilitation, it seems he has had in hand one or more owls of every one of the 19 American species.

To many people, owls are scary, and some think they are dangerous or in competition with us for some resource or other. Not at all. Few people know that only the two or three largest owls are capable of catching your pet cat or dog, and those live in pretty remote places. The ordinary "hoot owl" you hear in the woods probably weighs no more than half a pound. The world's largest, the female Eurasian Eagle-Owl, can weigh as much as 10 lb (4.5 kg), while the largest American owl weighs no more than half that. Among large owls, males, who do most of the hunting, weigh about 70% as much as their mates. No bird can fly while carrying more than about 1/3 of its weight, so no owl is going to fly off with Fluffy or Spot in its talons.

I was fascinated with the little insect-eating owls, primarily the Elf Owl of the American southwest and western Mexico. They are about the size of a Chickadee, and weigh just over an ounce, perhaps 33 grams. These little cactus-dwellers eat mainly insects and other "bugs", including scorpions. They are one of a handful of owl species that can pounce on a scorpion and nip off its stinger before being stung. Scorpions are big and meaty, so they make a good meal, particularly if you're only about twice their size. One just has to know how to handle the prey. Imagine, you or me tackling a scorpion the size of a Chessie or a Collie!

The diet of most owls consists mainly of small mammals, such as mice, voles, and shrews for Barn Owls and others of similar size, and rats, squirrels, and young rabbits for some of the bigger owls. A wise farmer or rural gardener will encourage owls on their property. A Barn Owl or Screech Owl (Western or Eastern) needs to eat one or two mouse-size critters daily. When an owl couple has a female on the nest, the male must catch one for him, one for her, for the first 25-30 days, then add at least one per hatchling for the next 30-60 days, until the young are independent. So, during the season that the little pests are multiplying even faster than rabbits, the owls are reaping the bounty, to the tune of 10-20 daily, for a month or two, per owl family. And by late summer, however many of those young owls are still alive (many, many die before the snow flies), every owl in the neighborhood is devouring 30-60 pesky little critters monthly.

If nothing is eating the mice in your neighborhood, then what? You need to buy lots and lots of mouse traps! I don't know about you, but I don't re-use a mouse trap. You can't clean the odor of freshly-dead mouse from a snap trap, so, according to the package directions, I toss trap and mouse (or vole) into the trash. And set a new trap, because another critter will be along soon. Can you guess that no owls live in the nearby patch of woods? I've never heard them in the neighborhood.

Owls that live near our towns are all threatened or endangered. Most use cavities, usually last year's woodpecker nest, to nest in and raise their chicks. Woodpeckers don't excavate nests in living trees, only in "snags". So don't clean out all the "dead wood" from that nearby forest lot. It is far from dead, until it falls over of itself. The chapters that discuss the natural history of the 19 American owls tell what kinds of threats they face, and tell a little about how to make a more favorable space for them. Some owls will take to nest boxes, if you make the entry hole the right size. I've found, when caring for bluebird and swallow boxes on a wildlife project, that some birds will peck the opening larger. Starlings are famous for that. Sometimes squirrels will do so also. So we either replaced the front of the box every couple of years, or added a metal front to the box, thick enough metal so a squirrel or starling couldn't open up the hole any larger.

Tony Angell has such eclectic talents, drawing so well, and writing equally well, that I really envy him. The House of Owls is a thoroughly enjoyable book.

Thursday, October 08, 2015

The best time to read a book

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, economics, philosophy, blogs

It didn't occur to me that Freakonomics authors Steven D Levitt and Stephen J Dubner would be writing a blog. Duh! Everyone has a blog!! So I've lost out on several years of fun and intelligent daily reading.

I got sort-of caught up by reading When to Rob a Bank…and 131 More Warped Suggestions and Well-Intended Rants. If the title count is accurate, and they've been contributing to the blog at least a couple times weekly over ten years' time, the 132 items in this book make up about one-tenth of their blog over its history. According to Sturgeon's Principle, 90% of everything is crud (his word). So it makes sense to glean the top tenth and present that to the world. Of course, having perused the Freakonomics blog before starting this review, I'd have to say that the other 90% is pretty good crud!

So, what have we here? Without giving a total spoiler, I have to say that the blog post of the book's title is a trick. What kind of trick? Read the post, on pages 248-251. One thing too cute to conceal: robbing a bank early in the day will yield more cash, but very few banks get robbed in the morning (that tells you when it is the safest to visit your local branch). Dubner wrote in this post, "Maybe if they were able to wake up earlier and go to work, they wouldn't have to rob banks?" But that doesn't answer the title question.

As in the Freakonomics books, the authors look at things differently from most of us. An economist doesn't guess (not a good one anyway), an economist uses data and lest the conclusions draw themselves. But having presented the data, sometimes it is both fun and instructive to consider the Why of it. For example, they looked into the dangers of recreational horse riding. Not much research was required, because a report by the CDC tells us, "The rate of serious injury per number of riding hours is estimated to be higher for horseback riders than for motorcyclists and automobile racers." So possible reasons why are considered. The one that makes the most sense to me is the one they list first, that most horse riding accidents occur on private property, not on the public streets, and typically only the rider is injured. Motorcycle and drag-racing accidents are just so much more public.

Another post asks, "Is Cheating Good for Sports?" It seems so, and not only does the public simply lap up stories about doping, about taping opponents' supposedly private practices, or about balls that were under-inflated, the sports-fan public goes totally gaga over sports stars who have done wrong and 'fessed up and followed up with a lot of kiss-and-tell stories about who else is cheating. Even folks who seldom watch any games will pay attention when the news is about this or that cheating star or coach, and what happened next. We do love our soap operas.

Sometimes they post a question, and one question, "Why are we eating so much shrimp?" garnered more than a thousand responses. They then analyzed the responses to see how many people focused on the demand for shrimp and how many on the supply. An economist thinks of supply factors, such as the falling price of shrimp now that shrimp farmers have gotten a handle on their trade. Most everyone else looked at greater demand such as people getting more conscious of their health. As the post closes, there is a follow-up question: Tuna consumption is falling; is that due to changes in supply or demand? I'd have answered, "Mercury". I suppose that is a supply answer.

A troubling subject has the title, "Is the Endangered Species Act Bad for Endangered Species?" The short answer: usually Yes. Because of the public review provisions of the Act, if the EPA publishes its intention to consider listing a species, those who own the piece of forest or stream or whatever are likely to hurry up and do what they were planning to do, before the listing is effected. Thus, the potentially endangered species is more likely to become an extinct species before the EPA finishes its review.

The study of human motivation yields a never-ending fund of surprising insights. I predict that these fellows will be in business for a long while yet.

Tuesday, October 06, 2015

We came from them and we are like them

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, animals, animal behavior, animal psychology

Consider the vivisection theater. Hundreds of years ago curious investigators began tying or nailing down animals such as dogs and cutting them open to see how their organs worked. But sometime in the 1700's such dissections began to be carried out in public theaters, as part of the scientific lecture circuit which had become popular as the "renaissance" and "enlightenment" eras unfolded. Some investigators, after a single such experience, forswore the practice, being horrified at the barbarities inflicted on animals whose suffering was so obvious to them. Others, claiming that only humans could truly feel pain, forged ahead. Their descendants are with us even today, still claiming that while the shot deer or elk may "feel" the arrow or bullet, it does not "suffer" because they have no existential feelings; still claiming that it is OK to put various noxious chemicals into the eyes of rabbits clamped in a frame, for the sake of learning which ones cause inflammation, all the while saying that of course the rabbit may flinch but that it is not "feeling pain", only "exhibiting a physiological response to nerve impulses"; claiming that catch-and-release does no harm to a fish, that fish can't possibly "suffer" from having a hook stabbed through a jaw or even caught in the lining of the stomach; and so it goes. I say beware of people who use "only" too frequently.

Of course, considering with what callous indifference so many humans are treated by other humans, it really seems that the ability to be "humane" is seldom to be found, and in many it is entirely lacking. Animals in general may be amoral, but humans seem to have a corner on evil and wickedness. When you think your housecat is playing with a mouse in some cruel way, think again. It is getting the mouse too tired to bite back when the cat's sensitive mouth goes in to bite the neck and kill it.

Among the "core curriculum" required of all Arts and Sciences students in the 1960's were courses in Anthropology and Archaeology and other Humanities, but nothing in a realm remotely like Animal Husbandry. Only in a Biology course was the matter of animal behavior brought up, and then primarily in a negative way. Only "observed actions" could be reported, and then in the most dry and objective of terms. To mention, even to whisper, that any animal might have any purpose, thoughts, emotions, or make decisions, was "anthropomorphism" and was a much more serious sin than mere robbery or adultery (unless it was with one of the professor's children).

I did not like this attitude from the beginning, but I didn't know what to do about it. A copy of Edward Tolman's 1932 classic, Purposive Behavior in Rats and Men, came into my hands after I graduated, in Geology not in a life science: I could hit rocks without "hurting" them. Dr. Tolman was reviled in his day. Now we know that he was nearly always right. His writing helped me grow a little more. Finally, in much more recent years, I concluded: We have been looking at this backward all along! Of course anthropomorphism is incorrect, but only because the animals we observe live in a different world than we. In those parts of our shared world, where our experiences and theirs can overlap, we and they are very similar. But it is not because "they are like us." No, no no no, it is because we are like them, because we came from them.

Take that in. Make it a motto:
We are like Them because We came from Them
Why do you have emotions? Because your ancestors had emotions. Not just your parents, but your hominid ancestors of 5 million years ago, your tiny primate ancestors of 25 million years ago, your pre-mammal ancestors of 300 million years ago, even the tiny chordates of millions of years before that had emotions.

Why can you plan? Because your ancestors could plan, all the way back to half a billion years ago. Because with careful observation, we can discern that not only to warm, fuzzy animals plan, but so do turtles, fish, worms, even insects. A tiny nematode with less than 1,000 cells in its entire body, only about one-fifth of them making up its nervous system, can plan. Nematode plans are simple, but they exist.

It has been demonstrated that noxious stimuli are just as painful for a spider as they are for you. Animals right up and down the "evolutionary scale" feel pain, fight for their lives, and either enjoy or suffer in accord with things that help or harm them. But don't take any comfort in the notion of the "evolutionary scale". It is a deceptive concept. Evolution began on Earth about four billion years ago. You are the product of four billion years of evolution. But so is a hamster, a bumblebee, a swallow, or a brook trout. There is an odd fish called a Coelacanth, the "poster child" of "living fossils." Specimens caught since they were re-discovered in 1938 look just like fossils of 65 million years ago. Prior to 1938, scientists thought they'd gone extinct at the same time as the dinosaurs. No fossils of Coelacanth bones younger than 65 million years had been found. But just because they look so much like their ancestors of so long ago, don't think evolution left them behind. Many aspects of their environment in the sorta-deep ocean have remained stable, but not all, and they have continued to evolve along with everything else. It just didn't change their skeleton very much.

Three types of animal were chosen by Carl Safina, to study and to learn from, in his quest to see just how similar we and they might be: Elephants, Wolves, and Killer Whales. He has written Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel. Fortunately, very early in his research, he met Cynthia Moss, who works with elephants. When he asked her what the elephants might teach us about humanity, he got a gentle answer that turned his question on its head. In part, she said, "Comparing elephants to people—I don't find it helpful. I find it much more interesting trying to understand an animal as itself." (p 12).

When we look at an elephant as an elephant, what do we see? Firstly, observing a single elephant is like observing a goblet and trying to infer what the rest of the place setting might be like with its plates, flatware, and so forth. Cynthia Moss and others observe elephant families and groups of families. An elephant has a social life as rich as yours (ignoring the 478 Facebook "friends" you've never met and who have no measurable impact on your life). Elephants don't rank themselves the way most primates do. But each family group has a Matriarch, a "Mom", whose accumulated wisdom earns her immense respect from the rest. Elephants together are a lot like big cows. But life is about more than eating and drinking. They play at times, even adults, and can be quite silly. When one member has been away for some reason, they enjoy very emotional reunions.

What do they experience differently from humans? They have two voices. We are familiar with the trumpeting calls they make, at frequencies humans can hear. Those are usually for sounding some kind of alarm, or for loud greetings when another is nearby. We are not familiar with their other voice, which is pitched too low for our ears. But if you happen to stand close to an elephant who is talking to another who happens to be 100 yards away, you might feel the voice. It'll make your chest shake. Most of their communication goes on in infrasound, and without special equipment, we can't even discover what elephant "words" sound like! They have worse eyesight than we, but a better sense of smell. Their thick hides prevent them from feeling quite as keenly as we do over most of their bodies, but the tip of the trunk is as sensitive as your tongue. It is also dexterous as a thumb and finger; I've seen an elephant peel and eat a tangerine, in less than a second. That's faster than I can do it!

A lot of things "everyone knows" about elephants was learned from elephants in captivity, or in family groups devastated by the loss of all the older family members because they were poached for their large tusks. A lot of what "everyone knows" about elephants comes from anecdotes about elephants who were mourning such losses, or driven almost mindless from boredom. Mr. Safina defines consciousness as the thing that feels like something. (p 21, his emphasis) The evident feelings of elephants and other animals must cause us to move the boundary of "consciousness" way, way back into the past. Consciousness isn't a unitary item, that you have or you don't. It is a scale, a spectrum, like fainter or brighter light. An elephant or killer whale has a larger brain than any human. Perhaps there's just as much, or more, "extra gray matter" in there, and their consciousness shines brighter than ours. Until we learn their languages, we'll probably never know.

Spending a good part of a winter watching wolves in Yellowstone, Safina learned more about consciousness. Seeing how wolves cooperate to hunt elk, on one hand communicating clearly with their fellow hunters while working equally hard to deceive their prey, it is easy to see how they plan and coordinate, solving problems on the fly (unless, of course, you are an anti-anthropomorphistic professor of animal behavior). He writes again about consciousness: "People who play with a dog—or a squirrel or a rat—and then believe that the animal lacks consciousness, themselves lack a certain consciousness." (p 288)

Just because other animals don't talk in human languages, doesn't mean they can't communicate. It is interesting, how many tame and domestic animals learn some human words, sometimes dozens of hundreds!, yet we never learn any of their words, and they must resort to the crudest pantomime to communicate with us. Who is the smarter one? D'you have a pet dog? He or she can make several dozen distinct sounds. Why not learn what some of them mean? About all most of us can learn is the sound of an angry growl (but we usually confuse it with an offended growl or a play-growl) and maybe the begging whine (and there are a few kinds we don't bother to distinguish).

Wolves have social lives more like elephants than like the Akela-Alpha-led wolves that sprang from the mind (certainly not the experience) of Rudyard Kipling. You know the drill. When the Alpha misses his first kill, the other wolves kill him and a new Alpha takes his place. Actually, the Alpha female has more status than her mate. He can't have pups; she can. And when food is abundant, other females are allowed to breed, and not always with the Alpha male only. Wolves do have some habits that prevent excessive inbreeding. And a wolf misses about 80% or more of its attempted kills. It takes persistence and continual practice and exercise to bring down deer or elk frequently enough to avoid starvation. Every wolf in a pack is equivalent to an Olympic athlete. But some hunt better than others. So they take the lead in a hunt, and they share their kills. Wolves care for each other. The notion of "dog eat dog" is a human concept, not a canine or lupine one.

Before going on to the killer whales, Mr. Safina dives into seven chapters that make up a section titled "Whines and Pet Peeves", in which he eloquently and convincingly takes on seven myths about the supposed lack of consciousness and so forth among nonhuman animals. This is the most powerful section of the book. Put extra-simply: if animals didn't have a "theory of mind", if they didn't have powerful social emotions (even the so-called solitary ones like tigers), if they didn't have a way to distinguish "me" from "not me" in their own thoughts, if they couldn't plan, and several other skills we tend to think we have in a monopoly, they would quickly become extinct. Every one of them.

We can plan because trilobites and worms and clams figured that out half a billion years ago, and animals ever since have been refining it. We just have the brain power to make extra-detailed plans. One thing after another. We came from them. Thus we are like them.

Killer whales. Makes you shiver, does it? All most of us ever knew of them was that they kill baleen whales, eat the tongue and let the rest sink. Steely-eyed, remorseless killers, these killer whales, even if they have been called the more fashionable term Orcas in recent years. Now we find there isn't only one worldwide species of killer whales. There are at least five and maybe 12 to 20. Some do indeed prey on non-toothed whales. Some prey only on fish. Members of one population, currently numbering 81 (more or less; it may have changed in the past year), feed only on salmon. Some prey only on sea lions or large seals. Some live in a home range of a few dozen or a few hundred square miles. Some range much more widely, and when they pass through the home range of another group with its different diet, they ignore them, and the home group ignores the passers-by.

They are matriarchal, like elephants. It's interesting, that all the really social animal species are matriarchal, except humans. Maybe patriarchy is why we have wars. Has any country on Earth that has a female leader (President or Prime Minister), caused a war? Of course a couple have fought defensive warfare, including Margaret Thatcher. Another side thought: I've had both male and female supervisors and managers, and the females generally were better leaders.

So back to the whales. People remember the few times (probably only twice) that a killer whale in captivity has killed a human. No wild killer whale, of any of the known groups (species?) has ever killed a human, nor deliberately threatened one. Maybe when our Prince of Peace returns, Jesus will come as a whale. Just like elephants, just like wolves, just like animals in general, killer whales are gentle with everything they don't intend to eat. They are playful, They love sex. They clearly love each other. They are emotional, they have personalities: some are more shy and some more outgoing; some are more playful and some seem rather monkish or contemplative.

But whales are whales. They are not "like us". They are descended from thinking, emoting, planning, playful animals just as we are. There is no justification for granting them "human rights", because they are not human. Suppose we found ourselves needing to be granted "wolf rights" or "whale rights" in order to get along with them?

Many folks are deathly afraid of "space aliens", who "abduct" some humans, perform "experiments" on them, perhaps with a reproductive intent, and even plant mysterious machines in their bodies. Isn't that what we do throughout nature? We have done this to almost every kind of animal out there, and there is a tiny radio transmitter that can be pasted on the back of a honeybee! I think all the fear of space aliens is a form of guilty displacement: we are afraid of ourselves, not because of what we might do, but because of what we have done and are doing. Including to people. The quintessential space alien of the early Twentieth Century was Josef Mengele, who abducted people, mostly Jews and homosexuals, and did all kinds of barbaric experiments on them. Do we need to destroy in order to learn? One would hope not. But tens of thousands of scientists would say, more or less reluctantly, that we must. Sad but true.

The author's point is not some anti-human, liberal rant. Even in the "rant chapters", section three, he is hopeful that we will figure out how to preserve and conserve and live with the biosphere before we heedlessly eliminate it. But drawing his book to a close, he wrote, "For every ballerina there are thousands of soldiers." The more I learn about it, the more I think hope is all we have.

Sunday, October 04, 2015

Creative Artist is a redundancy

kw: quotes, creativity, artists

Sometime in the mid-Twentieth Century, composer Dmitri Shostakovich said, "A creative artist works on his next composition because he was not satisfied with his previous one." This quote was the cryptogram in yesterday's newspaper, and once I had solved it, I said to myself, "No way!"

I'll first get this out: To do art is to be human. Everyone has artistic creativity, whether in the visual arts such as painting, sculpture, photography, crafts, scrapbooks and collages, architecture or design; performance arts such as singing, dancing, acting, or playing an instrument (or several, even at once!); or language arts such as poetry, essay writing, all kinds of fiction from "mini stories" of 100 words to novels and trilogies, plus script writing for stage or screen. The terms "skill" and "art" have enormous overlap, and may be entirely synonymous.

I suppose Mr. Shostakovich was talking about his own feelings, that after completing each composition, he felt dissatisfied and impelled to immediately begin another. He must have been so seldom happy! Does the impulse to create truly stem from dissatisfaction? I think not. The natural world, including that mass of human artifice we call civilization, is filled with beauty. Of course, not all. A rundown house may have some majesty left in its structure, but is mainly an eyesore, so of course the impulse to fix it up does arise from dissatisfaction. And a scene of devastation from a flood or other disaster has lost its beauty, but we can either participate in cleaning up, or protect it while nature restores the landscape in her own way. I think of visiting Mount St. Helens a number of years ago. The result of the 1980 eruption was a moonscape, beautiful only if you prefer your scenery lifeless. After just a few years, the biosphere was rapidly restoring itself, and now it provides many a pleasant view.

Of course, some places are naturally devoid of life and yet are beautiful. The wallpaper on this computer consists of many pictures taken in national parks. One on the screen right now is a picture of water-and-wind-scupted sandstone ridges and valleys, situated in the "four corners" area in the American Southwest. Peering hard, I notice there are a few bushes clinging to rock faces, but one does not notice them amidst the scene of geological beauty. This is an area in which life is expected to be scarce. But in southern Washington, with its heavy rainfall, one would expect a thriving biosphere cloaking nearly every inch.

When we have a settled workplace, whether office, cubicle, or the cab of a delivery truck, what do we do? Don't we hang or set some things we like here and there, or even clutter it up with trinkets? Show me an office with no hint of decoration, nothing expressing the occupant, and I'll show you someone with way too much self-control, or perhaps a security super-chief who is too paranoid to allow any smidgen of personality to be known.

Some people make their living from providing art for others. Are they driven to create work after work by dissatisfaction? Each work may be perfect. But there are so many things to express! I had the tremendous pleasure to attend a performance by a talented folk songwriter. She performs others' music on occasion, but she has things to say, and says them well in her songs. I also perform folk music, but seldom perform a song I've written; it wouldn't take long, because I've written only four that I think worthy of public consumption. I get sufficient joy from performing another's work skillfully and with the warmth and affection that an audience will love. So the work of art that I produce isn't the song itself, but the audible package the audience receives. Sometimes I might be dissatisfied with a performance. Thus I continue to practice. But even if it has gone perfectly, that doesn't mean I will do it exactly that way thereafter.

My main area of visual arts is making mobiles. I don't do so frequently; it is time consuming. I typically use found objects. Light ones. Sometimes when I'm done I find the mobile satisfactory, sometimes not. I made one using feathers picked up over many years and kept in the freezer (Always freeze a feather you want to keep, to kill mites and other parasites the bird may have harbored). A feather mobile can be quite beautiful. It also gathers dust quickly and is the very devil to keep clean. So that one is satisfying in one way, but not in another. Only once have I "repeated". Many years ago I made a mobile using pine cones of different sizes, from different kinds of trees. Around 15 years ago I made another one, because the first one had been lost or destroyed; I don't recall which. But I have one photo of the older mobile, so I won't forget it. I gave away the newer one, so perhaps one day I'll make a third.

The reason an artist who is not living of his or her art continues to create is because that is what humans do. We can't stop ourselves, or if we try we go insane.