Monday, May 22, 2006

Delayed Reaction

I took a walk to the beach today and, as I strolled, my mind--for reasons it certainly did not see fit to share with me--wandered back into the days of junior highschool. Specifically, I recalled I the stream of insults and cruel taunts that I so often found being flung my way. I suspect that these verbal assaults are something with which most anybody at that age has to contend, but I found them to be particularly vexing. The reason I was so frustrated was not that I was shocked or dismayed by the fact that I was being belittled--to the contrary, at the time, I believed that the cruelty of one’s friends was a given, that it was simply a part of the natural order of things, and I did my best to make peace with this reality--but instead, my aggravation stemmed from the fact that the barbs used against me were always random and nonsensical in nature.

Instead of picking on some quirk of my personality or highlighting a particularly ugly physical feature (and I surely had plenty of both!), my tormentors chose alternatively to make up some unattractive quality out of whole-cloth, assign it to me, and then mock me for it (An especially perplexing example of this occurred after I wore a recently-purchased “Cookie Monster” T-shirt to school. After being spotted in this apparently ridiculous attire, my “friends” permanently labeled me as “a wuss.” To this day, I cannot understand their logic. To me, Cookie Monster is the very embodiment of testosterone-driven machismo: he knows exactly what he wants and he’s willing to consume anything and everything that stands between him and his desire. Cookie Monster looks at rules, restraints, and societal norms and says, “To Hell with that! Me want Cookies!” How he could possibly be associated in any way with “wussiness” I simply cannot fathom).

To me, this seemed egregiously unjust; if I was to be mocked, I wanted to be mocked for something I deserved, damnit! My assailants’ weapons of choice also had the unfortunate side-effect--and this, I suppose, is the reason for which they were chosen--of catching me so off-guard that, in the moment, I was left completely incapable of mounting an effective counter-attack (and, in these kind of situations, being able to react and respond “in the moment” is all that really matters). So, instead of responding, I simply forced a weak, ineffectual smile and pretended that I wasn’t bothered by what they said.

If the fact that, ten years later, I still find my mind drawn back to their taunting is any evidence, it seems to me now that I really was bothered. Perturbed or not, as I walked today, I finally found my voice; As I replayed these conversations in my head I was at last able to fashion a few retorts so sharp and biting that, had I found myself with the opportunity to use them “in the moment” I would have cut my antagonists to bloody ribbons (metaphorically speaking, of course), while at the same time cementing my own status as demigod of coolness. No bully could possibly have stood in the wake of my calm, collected onslaught. Alas, I fear that my new-found parrying skills have come a decade too late, and since I no longer inhabit the halls of junior highschool, they will be of no use except as a means to revel in pubescent glories that might have been. I suppose that I should simply be glad that, as an adult living in a moderately more mature world, I no longer find having a steady supply of cruel come-backs at-the-ready to be a necessity. On the other hand, should I happen upon a person who, in his abounding foolishness, thinks me a bit of easy sport, a patsy upon which he can effortlessly heap brutally absurd daggers, he will find himself sorely mistaken; the gloves have come off and I’m ready to rumble.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

A public service announcement

I just finished reading Field Notes from a Catastrophe by Elizabeth Kolbert. This is a book that should be reading by, quite literally, everybody. Go to your local library; go to your local bookstore. Beg, borrower, or steal a copy. Do it now; don't wait. Once you're done reading it, loan it to a friend and tell everybody else you know to read it as well. We all really need a wake-up call. Maybe this could be the start of one.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

More primate (not monkey, darnit!) business

It may not have trickled its way onto most people's radars, but this provocative story has my corner of the internet all a-buzz:

Humans, chimps may have bred after split

Boston scientists released a provocative report yesterday that challenges the timeline of human evolution and suggests that human ancestors bred with chimpanzee ancestors long after they had initially separated into two species.

The researchers, working at the Cambridge-based Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT, used a wealth of newly available genetic data to estimate the time when the first human ancestors split from the chimpanzees. The team arrived at an answer that is at least 1 million years later than paleontologists had believed, based on fossils of early, humanlike creatures.

The lead scientist said that this jarring conflict with the fossil record, combined with a number of other strange genetic patterns the team uncovered, led him to a startling explanation: that human ancestors evolved apart from the chimpanzees for hundreds of thousands of years, and then started breeding with them again before a final break.

''Something very unusual happened," said David Reich, one of the report's authors and a geneticist at the Broad and Harvard Medical School.

The suggestion of interbreeding was met with skepticism by paleontologists, who said they had trouble imagining a successful breeding between early human ancestors, which walked upright, and the chimpanzee ancestors, which walked on all fours. But other scientists said the work is impressive and will probably force a reappraisal of the story of human origins. And one leading paleontologist said he welcomed the research as a sign that new genetic information will yield more clues to our deep history than once thought.

''I find this terrifically exciting and important work," said David Pilbeam, a Harvard paleontologist who was not part of the Broad team.

Aside from the fact that the headline is technically not true--neither humans nor chimpanzees as we know them were around at the time of this alleged breeding; it would be more accurate to say that members of the lineages that eventually led to modern humans and chimpanzees may have interbred after these lineages split (Alas, accuracy is once again sacrified in the name of sensationalism)--this is a fascinating story. Rather than offering my own under-informed opinions, let me point in the direction of two immensely more-qualified resources on this controversial topic: the fascinating commentary of science writer extraordinaire Carl Zimmer and the tempered criticisms of John Hawks, a Professor of Anthropology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Unless your curiosity drive is malfunctioning--in which case you should seriously consider taking it into the shop--and you are somehow already bored by this fascinating topic, check out the posts by these two writers; they're delicious brain-food.

Oh, and if any kind, Nature-subscribing Samaritan who stumbles onto this blog feels a pressing desire to email me ( a copy of the paper, I certainly would be obliged; I'd love to read this one.

Score another point for our knuckle-walking friends

From ABC:

Apes Shown to Be Able to Plan Ahead

WASHINGTON May 18, 2006 (AP)— They don't bring along an umbrella or sunglasses that might be needed later, but researchers say apes, like people, can plan ahead.

Both orangutans and bonobos were able to figure out which tool would work in an effort to retrieve grapes, and were able to remember to bring that tool along hours later, researchers report in Friday's issue of the journal Science.

In a series of laboratory tests the apes were shown the tools and grapes, allowed to retrieve grapes, and then removed from the area where the treats were available.

They were allowed back from one to 14 hours later and most were able to bring along the correct tool to get the treats, report Nicholas J. Mulcahy and Josep Call of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany.

The researchers said the finding suggests that planning ahead arose at least 14 million years ago, when the last common ancestor of bonobos, orangutans and humans lived.

While the findings do not necessarily imply that the apes are able to anticipate a future state of mind, they are nonetheless groundbreaking, Thomas Suddendorf of the University of Queensland in Australia said in a commentary.

"By identifying what capacities our closest living relatives share with us, we can get a glimpse at our evolutionary past," Suddendorf said.

Frankly, apes are simply so incredible that I constantly find myself baffled by the shear number of people who react with vehemence against the idea--well supported though it may be--that humanity is related to these stupendous creatures. I know I'm delighted by the mere thought of it!

On other hand, I'm wildly confused about why ABC chose to file this story under "Politics." Weirdoes.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Disenchanted with U.S. Government, young man threatens to join “lunatic fringe”

Carlsbad, CA. (Reuters) -
In this wealthy bayside community unknown for its seditious and rebellious spirit, one reporter has learned of a young man who is fed up with the status quo. Preferring to go by the pseudonym, S.O. Guy, this 23 year-old voter has decided, once and for all, that he and the Federal Government are--as he put it--”on the outs:”

“I know that in some relationships, both parties are able to work out their differences and come to some sort of workable agreement, but, in this case, I just don’t see how the Feds and I could work out even an amicable separation, much less a solution to keep us together.”

He takes a long drag on a foul-smelling cigarette and states, “I wouldn’t say that I hate the Bush Administration or Congress. No, I think it would be more accurate to say that I loathe them both with the fire of a thousand suns. For that reason, I think it would be best for both of us if we went our separate ways. I’d love to end our relationship with a nice ‘it’s me, not you,’ but c’mon, we all know that it’s really them.”

“It’s not that I like the idea of joining a third-party like the Libertarians or the Greens; I think that many of their policies are misguided and their leaders are just bat-shit crazy, but I’ve come to the point where policies that are only misguided and crazy seems like a distinctly positive step away from the misguided, crazy, deceptive and corrupt line that this present government is towing.”

When asked whether the thought of a Democratic take-over of Congress in the next round of elections might possibly assuage his angry attitude, Mr. Guy looked pensive for a moment and then replied, “I’ll admit that the thought does give me some pleasure. I’d weep with joy to see Bush and his congressional cronies forced to take some real, honest-to-goodness responsibility for the myriad of disasters they’ve created in the past few years; I’d love to see them all run out of Washington on their hands and knees, but let’s be honest, are the Democrats really much better? Sure, they’re all about criticizing the President now that it’s politically expedient to do so, but where were they when he had a ninety-percent approval rating, when we needed them most? Where were they when the USA PATRIOT Act was passed or when Bush got the go-ahead to attack Iraq? With an administration like ours, we need an opposition party that’s willing to stand up for it’s so-called convictions on a daily basis, not simply when the last year of each election cycle rolls around and it becomes convenient for them to exercise a little chutzpah. To me, the Democrats all seem like cowards, except for that Senator Feingold from Wisconsin--that guy has balls the size of cantaloupes.”

On the topic of his immediate plans, the young Californian said, “Well, I definitely see myself wallowing in apathy for some time, but after that, if things haven’t improved, I suppose I’ll register with the Libertarians. I’m not happy with the idea, but I’ve had just about as much government intrusion as I can stomach. Besides, if they succeed in getting marijuana legalized, that’ll make things interesting, right? If I get tired of the unfettered capitalistic ways of the Libertarians, I can always balance things out with the Greens and their watered-down socialism. The way I see things, I’ve got plenty of options, but unless I see major changes, neither the Republicans nor the Democrats have any picture in my future. I’d rather be a part of the irrelevant, lunatic fringe than a part of the problem.”

When asked to comment on this development, President Bush was indignant: “I don’t see why he’s blaming me for any of this. I just do what Dick and Karl tell me to do.” After being pressed to elaborate on this comment, Bush, overcome by a strangely blank and absent look, mumbled something under his breath that sounded distinctly like “Don’t mess with Texas” and wandered off to find some brush to clear.