Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Primates are cool, mmmkay?

From the NZ Herald:

Remarkable video clips of wild chimpanzees using "tool kits" to dig out termites from their underground nest have been recorded by scientists who believe it is the most sophisticated culture yet observed in great apes other than man.

Although chimps are known to use long twigs as simple tools to fish for termites - a nutritious delicacy - this is the first time that a far more complex behaviour involving two different kinds of tools has been observed in the wild.

Crickette Sanz of the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig and David Morgan of Cambridge University make the video with the help of hidden cameras trained on termite mounds in the tropical forests of the Congo that chimps were known to frequent.

They filmed the chimps using a thick stick, which they had previously prepared by stripping it of its leaves, to push a long tunnel about a foot deep into the heart of the underground termite nest. Once they had removed the stick, they pushed a far more delicate twig that had been deliberately frayed at one end down the tunnel and into the heart of the nest, said Professor Andrew Whiten of Edinburgh University.

Sweet. I've been flirting with the idea of pursuing a career in Primatology for a few months now. Stuff like this really makes me want to go for it (once I get the whole education thing going again, of course).

And one more important point from the story:

However, the primatologists warned that the study of primate culture is getting more difficult because all species of great ape are threatened with extinction.

"On a daily basis we're losing the opportunity to document culture in wild gorillas because these populations are disappearing faster than we can actually study them," she said.

Our closest cousins (especially Mountain Gorillas, Orangutuans and Bonobos) are in serious danger of extinction due to a variety of factors including loss of habitat due to deforestation and the bushmeat trade. This is a real tragedy that I hope can be averted, but I'm fairly pessimistic about our chances. If I could devote my life and career to saving as many of these incredible animals as possible (ala Jane Goodall), I would consider it time well spent.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

English Writing Assignment #2: Narrative

Little Shop Class of Horrors

As a pre-pubescent twelve-year-old, I loathed and feared the idea of vulnerability. Who could blame me? The harsh environment of most junior high schools, where the weak are preyed upon by the strong and the smallest sign of frailty can result in an atomic wedgie or worse, is enough to give even the most ardent Social Darwinist pause. The school I attended, Dassel-Cokato Middle School, was situated in the country between two very small towns. Some people might think that my school, with its rustic atmosphere, would have a more generous, kind-spirited attitude than its suburban counterparts. They would be wrong. Surrounded on all sides by miles of corn and bean fields, many of my classmates seemed to turn to cruelty and viciousness simply out of shear boredom. Whatever the reason, life at my junior high school was like life at most junior high schools; in other words, it was terrible. I was generally a good student and I had some friends, but I was nowhere near the top of the social pecking order and simply maintaining my low position required constant effort.

In the midst of this struggle, I was thrust into a daunting new environment that threatened to shake the core of my already anemic self-confidence: shop class. In order to churn out well-rounded individuals, my school required that each student take two quarters of the “Industrial Arts.” Most boys my age seemed delighted at this prospect, but for me it was a nightmare. In my mind, the ability to work with my hands was a skill that I was content to leave in a state of permanent atrophy and I wanted to learn to use power tools about as much as I wanted to go to prison. But I was not given a choice, so, on one brisk winter morning, I found myself attending the first day of shop class.

The teacher, Mr. Osborne, did nothing to inspire my confidence. He was tall and skinny with a flushed face and a shock of wispy white hair on the top of his head. When his mouth closed, his lips formed a condescending sneer that seemed to say, “I’m helping you because I’m being paid, not because I care about you.” It was this ugly mouth that I was watching on the first day of class. Mr. Osborne had gathered us in a rough semi-circle around one of the jigsaws and was explaining the safety rules for using the machine.

He pointed to the thin, vertically-aligned blade of the saw and stated, “This is not a toy and you will not treat it like one. The blade is designed to cut through wood, but it can just as easily cut through skin and bone if you’re not careful.”

He held out his thumb, directed our eyes to the top joint and said, “Always keep at least an inch between your fingers and the blade. In all my years of teaching, only one student has had an accident with a saw. He was messing around, not paying attention to what he was doing and you know what happened? He cut the tip of his index finger off. He had to have it sewed back on. There was blood everywhere.”

During this lecture, I happened to be standing next to a girl named Rose. She had moved to my school the previous fall and I did not know her well, but she was tall, husky and had a reputation for being a bit of a bully. While Mr. Osborne was telling us his “Parable of the Inattentive Student,” I noticed a change come over her. I saw all of the color drain out of her face. I do not know exactly what physiological responses cause a person’s skin to become suddenly and immediately pale, but it looked as if the blood in her veins had been replaced by liquefied chalk. To me, it appeared that death was near. Then, as if to confirm my suspicion, her eyeballs rolled into the back of her head and she staggered backward against the table she had been leaning against. Then, without warning, her muscles shut down and she crumpled onto the floor like a pair of discarded pants. I watched this astounding event unfold from a distance of one foot.
Mr. Osborne stopped his speech and went to Rose. He seemed more annoyed than worried, but he called the school nurse who quickly came and helped Rose out of the class. After they had left the room, Mr. Osborne picked up with his lecture, but his audience had become distracted. While the air around me hummed with a mixture of shocked murmurs and amused snickering, I stood in silence. In my head, I watched Rose collapse in a repeating slow-motion replay that paused each time to focus on the ghostly blank stare of her sightless eyes. As Mr. Osborne continued to explain to us the terrible things that would happen if we misused his machinery, I was overwhelmed by nausea. My eyesight blurred and I began to see a company of tiny black ants dance along the edges of my vision. All at once, my pores exploded with sweat, but I felt like the room temperature had dropped ten degrees. I cannot personally attest to what transpired next, but afterwards I was informed that my skin took on that familiar white-death hue and I proceeded to perform a nosedive onto the polished granite floor. Unlike Rose, who had the grace to simply collapse in a heap, I toppled head-first, my body as straight and inflexible as a two-by-four.

Ten seconds later, I regained consciousness and found myself lying on the floor. I had no idea what had happened, but I could sense that things were amiss. The world was spinning and I could not see clearly, but I noticed that my glasses were mysteriously bent and lying next to me, instead of on my face. Mr. Osborne called the nurse and, for the second time in less than ten minutes, she came to escort a sick student out of shop class. Even with her assistance, I barely managed to make it through the door before I collapsed against the wall and had to bury my head as far into my knees as it would go. Eventually, the gyrating of the world slowed enough to allow me to get back on my feet and, small step by small step, we continued the long trek to the nurse’s office.
I was placed down on a cot next to Rose who, amused at our combined infirmity, proceeded to make me feel even more miserable than I already did. She looked at me and said, “Well, I guess we both just have weak stomachs. There’s nothing wrong with that.”

Her words were meant to comfort me, but they had the opposite effect she intended and I resented her for it. I did not have a weak stomach! Maybe her stomach was unsound (and as far as I was concerned there was something wrong with that!), but mine most certainly was not. I was just as strong and normal as anybody else and I certainly had not been bothered by the teacher’s graphic descriptions. I was a boy and that meant that I enjoyed discussing gruesome topics like losing digits and bleeding profusely, right? The real reason I had passed out was that I had seen Rose do it first and my body had, for reasons unknown, been forced to mimic her. In other words, all of this was her fault!
These were the lies that I told myself in an attempt to reestablish a sense of invulnerability, if only in my own eyes. Certainly I would be teased about blacking out (“Hey kid, did you have a nice trip? How was your fall?”), but if I could convince myself that personal weakness had not been the true cause, maybe it would not hurt as badly. Armed with this strategy, I went back to shop class the next day and managed to survive. I almost always wished that I could be anywhere else, but I did my time without further incident or embarrassment.
Looking back on that day with a decade of hindsight and a bit more maturity, I can see the dishonesty in the things I told myself while in the nurse’s office and I realize now that Rose was right about me. I do have a weak stomach. I have not passed out since that day but I’ve come uncomfortably close quite a few times. Even today, a particularly grisly discussion may occasionally send me searching for a place to sit down and hug my knees before waves of vertigo sweep me under. I have learned to live with these infrequent, but unpleasant experiences. I also know that Rose was right about something else; we are all weak and vulnerable at times and there’s nothing wrong with that.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Self-hating Jews Promote World Peace

This is too funny:

Amitai Sandy (29), graphic artist and publisher of Dimona Comix Publishing, from Tel-Aviv, Israel, has followed the unfolding of the “Muhammad cartoon-gate” events in amazement, until finally he came up with the right answer to all this insanity - and so he announced today the launch of a new anti-Semitic cartoons contest - this time drawn by Jews themselves!
“We’ll show the world we can do the best, sharpest, most offensive Jew hating cartoons ever published!” said Sandy “No Iranian will beat us on our home turf!”

As the old cliche states, this idea is "so crazy it just might work."
Here's hoping.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

English class writing, #1

I'm currently taking an English class at a local community college? Why? Because, UCSD told me that I needed another college-level english writing classes to be eligible for transfer, that's why. My first assignment was to write a self-portrait from the neck up. I post it here, not because I think it was particularly stellar or terribly relevant to this blog, but simply because it's something that I wrote:

What’s in a name? If William Shakespeare is to be believed, a name does not say much about its owner. A face, on the other hand, says quite a lot. A person’s face is the first feature to be seen and the last to be forgotten. It is the most enduring physical impression that you or I have to offer. I hope - and it will soon be clear if my optimism is justified - that mine puts me in a comfortable position somewhere between Quasimodo and Johnny Depp.

Lounging on my head is a mat of finely textured brown hair. The sides and back are shaved short, not short enough to garner me any military discounts, but close. The top, with the exception of an Alfalfa-like patch near the rear that refuses to bend to the forces of gravity or human will, is pushed down and forward, while the front is spiked up like a fortress wall guarding my scalp against the onslaught of an army of combs. Highlighted by a pale complexion and under close scrutiny, my forehead is a lined, scarred and pockmarked testament to historic battles instigated by the forces of chicken pox and acne against my poor, defenseless epidermis. In addition, three horizontal fold lines have formed across my temple, possibly indicating that I spend too much time alternating between astonished excitement and furrowed disapproval.

My eyebrows, which are of a similar hue to the hair on my scalp, are thick and may often aspire to and sometimes verge upon unruliness, but I have never found them to be unmanageable. A centimeter lower, two narrow dark blue rings circumscribe the outer edges of my irises. Inside these borders are two fascinating amalgamations of sapphire, jade and gold that, when gazed into for a long time, appears to dance and shimmer from the surface of my eyes all the way to the back of my head. These jewels are, I think, one of my better features. Conversely, my nose is unquestionably my least tolerable feature. Overly large and uneven, it seems that I may have opted for the super-size when I should have ordered a medium! To make matters worse, the skin on and surrounding my schnozzle consistently manages, in seemingly paradoxical fashion, to be both dry and oily.

My lips are full and evenly matched, save for when they are pursed and my upper lip seems to be swallowed by its bottom partner. Often in need of ChapStick, but rarely in possession of it, they tend to be parched and cracked. My jaw line is firm but rounded and is hidden by a scraggly, auburn-shaded beard. These glorified whiskers are constantly threatening to creep and crawl down my collar and are often encouraged in this endeavor by my inconsistent shaving habits. My neck is thin and unremarkable except for a single lonely mole that, like a rose in the desert, seems curiously, but not unpleasantly, out of place.

As the most noteworthy and identifiable of physical characteristics, our faces have interesting things to say about who we are. Not for nothing does the old maxim remind us to “Put our best faces forward.” My best face may not be perfect and there are certainly things that I would change about it if I could, but my mug is generally satisfactory and could, I like to believe, be loved by more than just my mother.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Senator Russ Feingold on warrantless wiretapping

From TPMCafe:

"This administration reacts to anyone who questions this illegal program by saying that those of us who demand the truth and stand up for our rights and freedoms somehow has a pre-9/11 world view. In fact, the President has a pre-1776 world view. Our government has three branches, not one. And no one, not even the President, is above the law."

Mhmmmm....makes me proud to say I was born in Wisconsin.

Friday, February 03, 2006

The metaphysical implications of cross-pavement poultry movement

Skeptico, in hilarious fashion, answers one of life's timeless questions. Go read it. Now.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

In which I prove to be too cool to live up to my commitments

I have decided to put my Apocalyptic literature plans on the back-burner, at least for the moment. Why am turning my back on this lucrative career move? Well, my reasoning goes something like this:

1. I tried to think of something funny to write.
2. Nothing came to mind.
3. I got bored.
4. I quit.

No doubt this decision is for the best. I'm far too sophisticated for that sort of pulp fiction anyway. I think I need to focus my attention on more high-class forms of artistic comic books and professional wrestling!