Friday, April 29, 2016

Something Fishy Going On Here

A few years ago, I found some circumstantial evidence that we had a breeding pair of osprey (Pandion haliaetus) living in the vicinity of one of my jobsites... it's not usual to find sizable fish on the lawn fifty feet from the nearest body of water. Sure enough, within a week or two, I was able to spy a rather vocal fishhawk perched high up in a dead tree adjacent to our property. We've had osprey there for about four years now.

Last year, I noticed another osprey in the vicinity of my major workplace- we're not far from the Mighty Hudson, and we have a small tributary running through our grounds. Yesterday, I had the great good fortune to see the local osprey perched on the limb of a tree on our grounds, eating a fish:

It was right around sundown, so the picture, hastily snapped with the camera of the department smartphone, isn't all that great. What is great, is the fact that we have osprey onsite... what's even better is the fact that the osprey have come back from the brink of extinction due to the effects of DDT. Recently, I've had the good fortune to have osprey sightings not only at work but near the waterways closer to home. A decade ago, I'd have to visit the Marshlands Conservancy in Rye, NY, to get my osprey fix (there is a nesting box in a cove there), now I can get it every week just by showing up on the job.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Fijne Konigsdag

This week, I have received 292 visitors from the Netherlands, mainly because I posted a recap of a lecture by a celebrated Netherlander. In all my excitement, I forgot that yesterday was Koningsdag, or perhaps I'm just nostalgic for the days of Good Queen Beatrix, and the 'old' April 30th celebration of Koninginnedag.

Years ago, I had the great good fortune to be in Amsterdam for Koninginnedag. I had traveled to the Netherlands with one of my housemates (at the time, I was living in a house owned by a cousin of a high-school classmate of mine, with a bunch of guys I'd known for years- it was like living in a beach house without an ocean), and we had done enough research to know to bring orange shirts. Even better, another old friend of mine who was living and working in Warsaw at the time, and his brother who was living in California, were both in the Netherlands at the same time, so we had the perfect amount of travelers to share a rijsttafel, or a bottle of jenever. Being rogue adventurers, we went a bit off the beaten path- one memorable occasion saw me confronted by a local in a bar in the Jordaan district:

"What are you doing here?"
"We're tourists."
She wasn't convinced: "No, the tourists are in Leidseplein, the tourists are in Rembrandtplein. What are you doing here?"
"Honestly, we're tourists."
"You're not tourists, you're freaks!"

Now, that's a compliment... As I said, we got a little bit off the beaten path, trying to scratch a bit beneath the surface. As a New Yorker, there are echoes of home all over the Netherlands- Breuckelen, Haarlem... I took a day trip to Rotterdam to check out the unusual post-WW2 bombing architecture, and we all took a train to Haarlem and took a local bus through the polders and bulbfields to Noordwijk aan Zee and back again. Wherever we went, we met with the warmest hospitality, and a genuine interest among the people to share their culture with us.

It all culminated on Koninginnedag- upon getting up and looking out the hotel window, I saw a sea of orange-clad revelers. My friends and I went from bar to bar, partying with the friendly Amsterdammers. At one point, I was 'adopted' by a family- mom, dad, and their eight year old daughter were all together in a local tavern, and they took the time to explain the significance of the various patriotic songs that the crowd was singing. I had the overwhelming sense that the crowd was filled with a deep sense of pride without the slightest bit of jingoism... theirs was the pride that says, "This is who we are, and this is who we love" without the need to claim that who they were and what they loved was better than anyone else's culture. They felt it very important to share their pride with visitors who wanted to get somewhere beyond the tourist experience... not tourists, but friendly 'freaks'. It was a wonderful experience, and I really can't say enough about Hollanders.

Here's wishing a happy belated Konigsdag to the influx of readers from the Netherlands... a few years back, I posted the video for the sentimental song Het kleine café aan de haven, but I figure that this is a perfect opportunity to post a live version:

The sentiments expressed in the song are so universal that the song has become a standard in several languages... I like it because it reminds me of all of the little cafes in which I found such a welcome.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Wow, Wow Wow Wow, WOW!

Tonight, I opened my browser and navigated over to the 'design' page of the old blog, and I saw something which amazed me: 1473 hits. Poking around further, I checked out my 'stats' page and found that most of my traffic has been coming from Facebook: 1026 120 97

I'm one of those holdouts who isn't on Facebook... back in the 90s, figuring I needed to become streetwise, I worked as an investigator, mainly of auto accident claims, in NYC's five boros, mainly Brooklyn and Queens, so I am v-e-r-y leery about putting information out on public display. Luckily, the photograph of my public spanking by a dominatrix at an S&M-themed restaurant on my 30th birthday (courtesy of smartass friends) was taken before social media was a 'thing'.

I decided that I needed to Google 'big bad bald bastard' and 'Facebook', and I found this:

I can't tell you all how grateful I am to Dr Frans de Waal, not only for his lifetime of research and advocacy, but for his kindness in linking to my modest little blog. Dr de Waal has worked tirelessly to connect us to our fellow Earth denizens, and I am humbled by his connecting to me.

A glance at the title of my blog is enough to show that I primarily envisioned this as a snarky, tongue-in-cheek weblog serving as a vehicle for letting off steam about current events and the state of politics, and for writing about music, art, and books that I like... oh, and a fan site for my feline co-workers. I owe a debt of gratitude to Margaret Mittelbach, Dorian Devins, and Michael Crewdson of the Secret Science Club not only for their wonderful lecture series and their friendship, but for forcing me to bring my best writing efforts to the blogging game. Oftimes, when one is writing multiple days out of the week, one tosses off posts quickly, but the lecture recaps involve note taking (basically, juggling a note pad and a beer in a darkened performance space) and enough web-surfing to verify the hastily-scrawled notes and provide links and attribution. I have an obligation to the lecturers and my readers to get things right... and I sincerely hope that I've succeeded.

So, to Dr de Waal, here's a heartfelt "Thank you", and for the benefit of visitors from the University of Utrecht, "Hartelijk bedankt!"

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Secret Science Club Post Lecture Recap: Unabashed Fanboi Edition

Last night, I headed down to the beautiful Bell House, in the Gowanus section of Brooklyn, for this month's Secret Science Club lecture featuring Frans de Waal, Biologist, Primatologist, Psychologist, Ethologist, and personal hero of mine. Dr de Waal is a living legend, just look at the man's affiliations, cut-and-pasted from his website:

De Waal is C. H. Candler Professor in the Psychology Department of Emory University and Director of the Living Links Center at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center, in Atlanta, Georgia. Since 2013, he is a Distinguished Professor (Universiteitshoogleraar) at Utrecht University. He has been elected to the (US) National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the Royal Dutch Academy of Sciences. In 2007, he was selected by Time as one of The Worlds' 100 Most Influential People Today, and in 2011 by Discover as among 47 (all time) Great Minds of Science. Being editor-in-chief of the journal Behaviour, de Waal has stepped in the footsteps of Niko Tinbergen, one of the founders of ethology.

I approached this writeup by saying, "No pressure, man, just write the post... he's just someone who's work you've followed for decades, that's all."

Dr de Waal began the lecture by joking about the current election, "I wrote a book titled 'Chimpanzee Politics', but this posturing and dick measuring is below chimp politics." He followed this facetious introduction by noting that researchers in the past century downplayed animal intelligence. Behaviorists talked about stimulus and response but eschewed talking about thinking. He identified himself as a primatologist, but noted that he is interested in all animals. He then showed a breathtaking film of Lisala, a female bonobo at the Lola Ya Bonobo sanctuary, which houses bonobos rescued from the 'bush meat' trade- in the film, Lisala is balancing a rock on her back while also carrying her child. She walks about a kilometer carrying rock and baby, prompting Dr De Waal to note, "You know she's going to use it (the rock)." After the kilometer walk, which ended at a flat, hard surface, Lisala used the rock to crack nuts. Dr De Waal noted of Lisala, "Lisala thinks ahead." The bonobo knew about the nuts, and knew about the hard place, and she carried the rock to the hard place in order to crack the nuts.

Dr de Waal then noted that it used to be thought that animals were 'trapped in the present', but he noted that they are capable of 'time travel'- they exhibit episodic memory and future planning.

The topic of the talk then shifted to Mirror Self Recognition, a topic which was also discussed in January's lecture. Dr de Waal showed a short video of a female bonobo which had been bitten by a male inspecting the puncture wound in her forehead with a smartphone camera. Dr de Waal joked, "If you have a dog that does that, call me!" He then showed a video of a capuchin monkey interacting with a mirror- while the monkey was interested in the mirror, there was no sense of self-recognition. Chimps, upon discovering the 'mirror trick', tend to inspect their mouths and teeth- parts of their own bodies that they have never seen. Female chimps also inspect their behinds, while male chimps are more interested in inspecting the behinds of the females. Dr de Waal noted that the chimps will even check themselves out in his reflective sunglasses.

Dr de Waal then showed us a video of Ayumu, a genius chimp living in the primate research center of Kyoto University, playing a computer game which involves remembering a number sequence:

Ayumu has beaten human competitors at this memorization game, which has upset more than one person. Dr de Waal attributed this to the attitude that humans feel they need to be at the top, noting that the old 'pyramid' had God on top, with the humans coming next, and then a hierarchy of animals, with those most like humans closer to the peak.

Dr de Waal then posed the question, how does one test an animal's 'IQ'? Dogs and cats exhibit very different behaviors, how could one make a comparison? He then enumerated three important criteria for testing animal congnition: Researchers must beware the 'Clever Hans' trap. Intelligence testing must be species appropriate. Researchers must avoid negative evidence.

Clever Hans was an early 20th century performing horse which was reputed to be able to solve arithmetic problems, but was actually basing its responses on its owner's body clues... the horse was smart, but in a different manner than the way it was billed. One way in which to eliminate the 'Clever Hans' effect is to block the animal subject's view of the tester... as this video of retired psychology professor Dr John Pilley and his dog Chaser demonstrates:

Testing must be species appropriate... for instance, elephants are reluctant to use tools with their sensitive trunks. Dr de Waal joked that we test animals better than children, then contrasted the differences between testing human children and testing apes- children have language ability which apes lack, there are no barriers between children and researchers while ape subjects are separated from their testers, child subjects have parental support while apes are tested alone, and most importantly, children are tested by their own species while apes are tested by a different species.

Dr de Waal noted that apes don't ape... while human children imitate human behavior, apes typically don't. In order to test apes' ability to ape, observations of ape-to-ape learning had to be made. Apes do learn from each other, with the learning of a behavior like nut cracking typically taking five to six years. In the Yerkes research center, the chimps choose to enter the Cognition Room- the chimps recognize not only their own names, but the names of the other chimps. They can get their friends if requested to do so. In one particular experiment Dr de Waal and research fellow Victoria Horner dubbed the 'Panpipe Paradigm' (Pan being the chimp's genus), chimpanzees were given long pipes with which they could activate a reward 'hopper' by either poking the hopper or lifting a lever on the hopper. One group of chimpanzees learned to activate the hopper by poking while another learned to lift the lever, with high ranking females of each group transmitting the knowledge to other members of their group (the high-ranking males were too busy with sex and politics to bother with this task and low-ranking females were ignored by higher status chimps). By imitating the behavior of their high-ranking conspecifics, two separate cultural traditions developed, pokers and lifters.

The third criterion for good testing of animal intelligence is to beware of negative evidence- the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. In early tests to determine elephants' ability to recognize themselves in mirrors, the elephants were in enclosures with bars, and the mirrors were small and awkwardly placed. The failure of the elephants to pass the mirror test under these circumstances was a failure of the test, not the elephants. Given large enclosures and large mirrors, elephants can recognize themselves in mirrors:

When dealing with negative evidence, the best procedure is to ask, are we asking the right questions? Is it fair to ask whether we humans are smarter than an octopus?

The lecture then shifted to tool use in animals. It was long held that 'Man is a Tool-Using Animal'. In the early 20th century, German psychologist Wolfgang Köhler tested chimpanzees' problem-solving skills by placing chimps in an enclosure in which bananas were suspended from above, with sticks and crates scattered around the floor. The chimpanzees figured out how to stack the crates in order to reach the reward:

Dr de Waal joked that Köhler's name was 'hissed by psychologists'. He then showed a video of a female chimp which solved Köhler's problem by throwing a box at the suspended bananas, knocking them to the ground, quipping that she had stumbled upon the 'unofficial solution'. He then showed a remarkable video of a chimpanzee downing a drone that was being used to film at a Dutch zoo:

He followed this up by joking, "Welcome to our chimp overlords." He then showed us a video of capuchin monkeys cracking palm nuts with rocks. He noted that the characterization of "Man the Tool User" had to shift to "Man the Tool Maker". Then he noted that chimpanzees make tools, as do New Caledonian crows:

The new claim is that humans make tools to make tools... Dr de Waal noted that chimps have entered the Stone Age, and joked that chimp people are unhappy with competition: "My dolphins are smarter than your chimps." He noted that, with New Caledonian crows making tools in the field, and Aesop's fable of the crow and the pitcher being replicated, the corvids are posing a big challenge to the primate people.

To make matters even more of a challenge for the primate-centric, he showed a video of an octopus carrying a coconut shell to use as a portable shelter, noting that the locomotion of the octopus involves a strong cognitive component:

And an alligator using a stick as a lure for nesting egrets:

Dr de Waal noted that there is a 'Cognitive Ripple Effect'- after tool use was observed in apes, it began to be observed in other animals- monkeys then crows, then alligators... Every cognitive capacity we find in other animals ends up being older and more widespread than we thought. He indicated that while rats and pigeons make good research subjects, studies using them don't apply equally to other species. A wide range of species needs to be studied to gain a better understanding of cognition... noted that social paper wasps can recognize each others' faces while non-colonial wasps cannot. He noted that animals have the cognitive abilities they need due to natural history and ecology.

Dr de Waal quipped that 'animal cognition' was a dirty word in the 1980s... we will never know what animals think. He noted that anthropomorphism, the (mis)attribution of human qualities to non-humans, was something to be avoided, but he questioned whether concerns about anthropomorphism should apply to chimpanzees and other animals closely related to humans. He cited the example of kissing, noting that kissing gouramis appear to kiss when engaging in mouth-to-mouth combat, while chimpanzees kiss to reconcile with each other and those dirty, sexy bonobos engage in tongue kissing. Dr de Waal urged the audience, if similar species engage in similar behavior under similar circumstances, use the same label. Having similar traits due to shared ancestry is homology- homologies are important and deserve the same terminology- the forelimb extremities of humans and chimps have the same function and the same origin, they should both be labeled 'hands'.

If a gorilla is tickled, call the resultant sound laughter, there's no need for obfuscation. Dr de Waal noted that laughter is an animalistic behavior, we lose control of ourselves when we laugh. He then showed video of Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin laughing uncontrollably:

Dr de Waal advised us to honor the similarities between humans and our relatives, not to deny them. He presented us with a neologism- anthropodenial: the a priori denial that animals can have human-like mental experiences. He illustrated such experiences by discussing Dr Sarah Brosnan's monkey fairness experiment, in which two monkeys are given unequal rewards, with familiar results... here's Dr de Waal showing video of the experiment:

This experiment apparently raised a bit of a controversy, Dr de Waal joked about the torrent of mail he received, with one philosopher indignantly claiming that it's impossible that monkeys know fairness, because fairness was discovered during the French Revolution, and numerous economists complaining that monkeys aren't economists. He then showed a video of two children, one given a whole cookie and one a half cookie (indignantly thrown to the floor), noting that mothers do this under protocols that would never be approved in animal studies. He noted that the rejection of the sub-par reward is an irrational response, because half a cookie is better than no cookie at all.

I was unable to get in a question during the Q&A... not only was the main room packed to capacity, but front-of-house was filled, with those outside getting the audio feed. One questioner asked if empathy was limited to mammals, and Dr de Waal indicated that he was setting up an experiment to determine if fish had a capacity for it. Another question regarded intelligence versus instinct- Dr de Waal opined that the line between them was hard to draw, giving the example of the weaverbirds, the males of which build complex nests- while all males build nests, some are better at it than others, and females prefer males who build better nests. Dr de Waal stated that it is difficult to distinguish biological tendencies and learned tendencies. He finished the night by urging us all to realize that all organisms are interconnected, and to cherish these connections.

All-in-all, Dr de Waal delivered a fantastic lecture to a packed house. Once again, the 'Secret Science Sweet Spot' was hit- the lecture was informative-yet-accessible, with great video accompaniment and humorous touches. Dr de Waal is a titan in the field of ethology, and it was a privilege to hear him speak. After the Q&A, he had a book signing, with copies of his new book, Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?, on sale. Unfortunately, I had to bug out as soon as the talk was over in order to get to work an uncharacteristic Tuesday half-shift. At any rate, kudos to Dr de Waal, Dorian and Margaret, and the staff of the beautiful Bell House.

Here's a nice one-on-one interview with Dr de Waal on the topic of animals' feelings:

Speaking of feelings, I get a real sense that the man has a love for his subjects... he's a guy I'm glad I share the planet with.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Peel and Eat

I have an intense love/hate relationship with Japanese knotweed (Fallopia japonica)... on the one hand, it's one of the most noxious invasive species to haunt the United States, on the other hand, it's not only edible and probably healthy to eat, but it happens to have a nice, tart taste(reminiscent to that of its relative, rhubarb) that I enjoy.

Normally, I eat this plant out of hand, munching on fat, juicy stalks while whacking down thinner, less choice ones by the score.

The purple-mottled peel comes off rather easily, in long strips, exposing the tender interior of the stalk. Typically, I'd munch on these suckers like one would munch on a celery stalk, but I decided that I'd peel a bunch of them to be cooked when I get home from work:

I figure I'll begin simply, by adding them to stir-fries... they would probably taste great in counterpoint to caramelized onions. There are recipes for it on one of my favorite websites, Eat the Invaders, as well as traditional Japanese recipes for this horrible-yet-useful plant, known as itadori in its homeland.

I figure I can use all of the recipes I can find... I'll be eating this stuff for months, for America.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Life's Too Short To Be Cooped Up Indoors

Today, at work, I noticed an unannounced guest in the building:

Just going by the twin cerci at the tail end of this critter, and our site's proximity to water, that this is a mayfly, specifically a not-quite-adult subimago. Since mayflies are basically the prime example of extremely ephemeral creatures, doomed to die after the briefest of existences, I didn't want to see this doomed creature's existence to be wasted indoors, alone:

The insect needed little coaxing, one quick flutter of the hand and it took off to join the mating swarms over the site's pond. It's bad enough when a long-lived creature is cooped up inside all day, for a creature with a lifespan of mere hours, it's intolerable.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Nutkin, We Need to Talk

I'm a fan of Nutkin, and I'm not the only one. I'm a little worried, though, because it seems like Nutkin has a problem:

Oh, Nutkin, what are you doing on top of the garbage can, and what's that in your mouth? You're gnawing on muffin wrapper, because it still has some crumb adhering to it? Now, Nutkin, being a junkie (or a trashy, for that matter), is no way to go through life. There are plenty of oak and hickory trees around, there's no need to go diving into the trash barrel. Nutkin, we need to talk, I think you may need help.