Tuesday, November 28, 2006

I wish I were there

Check out this short video about a rehabilitation school in Indonesia for orphaned orangutans. I can't say that I have anything resembling a well-developed nurturing instinct, but this, I think, could bring out the hidden mommy even in me!

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Oh my geek!

I'm not ashamed to say that I think this is wonderfully hilarious:

(via Afarensis)

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Things for which I am thankful

In an effort to ensure that I have something to say when the inevitable question makes it way around the dinner table today,I'm going to list some of the things for which I feel grateful this year (in no particular order, other than the first one):
Happy Thanksgiving, everybody!

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Melodramatic and muddled musings inspired by a trip to the zoo

Today, after a five-month hiatus, I visited the San Diego Zoo. As promised, I apologized to my orangutan friends (primates are only one group among many that are deserving of such an apology, but let's face it—I’m a biased ape-man) for all the suffering humanity has caused them. In response, they ignored me completely. I took this response as an expression of some sort of metaphysical irony (Orangutans being famous for their love of obscure philosophical jokes and all). No doubt their failure to acknowledge my attempted mea culpa was meant as a stark reminder of the plain fact that humanity has failed to fully acknowledge and atone for the destructive excesses of its power. Damn smart—but still very dirty—apes!

In all seriousness, I was almost moved to tears today while watching the orangutans. To me, they, along with the other apes, are more precious than just about anything else in this world (excluding my family and other loved ones, of course). The thought that these smart, fascinating and beautiful creatures might be gone—or nearly so—in just a few short years saddens me more than I can express in words. The more I think about it, the more I come to believe that working in the field of endangered species conservation is what I want to do with my life. I'm not particularly confident that the attempt to stem the tide of human-caused extinction will be any less futile than trying to plug a leaky dam with duct tape, but, hopeless or not, it's a fight I want to be a part of, even if only in some small way.

On a happier note, I can now confidently say that the San Diego Zoo is my favorite place on earth. Literally every single time I go—especially those days when I really have to debate about whether or not the trip will be worth the time and hassle—I leave feeling happy, rejuvenated, and extremely glad I got my lazy butt off the couch and did something worthwhile with my day. You can keep your Six Flags and your Disneyland, but I, like the great prophet and philosopher Peter Brazaitis, belong in a zoo.

p.s. I've added some conservation-related links to the sidebar. Please check them out.

p.p.s. Today, I watched while two apes—in the midst of their peers and a group of mildly scandalized zoo-goers—had passionate, unabashed sex. Did you witness anything that fascinating and amusing today? I didn’t think so. See what you’re missing?

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Goodbye, we hardly even knew you

Here's something to temper the rhapsodic atmosphere brought about by yesterday's momentous events (finally, after years of tearful, agonized waiting, Britney Spears is once again on the market!): Orangutans flee Indonesia forest fires.
MANTANGAI, Indonesia - Dozens of endangered orangutans have been driven from their dwindling jungle habitat in Borneo by months of land-clearing fires that have shrouded parts of the region in a choking haze, conservationists said Monday.

Around 43 orangutans have been taken for medical treatment to centers in the Indonesian provinces of Central and West Kalimantan, said Anand Ramanathan, an emergency relief worker with the Washington-based International Fund for Animal Welfare, or IFAW.

Most were beaten by humans after fleeing from the burning jungle to nearby plantations in recent weeks, but several are being treated for respiratory problems and burns, he said.

Farmers and plantation companies set hundreds of land-clearing fires on Borneo and Sumatra each year, sending thick smoke into surrounding areas and neighboring Singapore, Malaysia and Brunei. It has caused billions of dollars in business losses and in some cases health problems.

"Pristine jungle areas are being burnt," said Jennifer Miller, a relief worker with IFAW, which is helping Indonesia's Borneo Orangutan Survival group to recover and treat wounded orangutans. "It's extremely, extremely threatening.

"There is nothing worse than seeing an animal with a burnt face, blind and fleeing," she said ahead of a 9-day trip to Borneo.

Monsoon rains have dowsed some of the fires — the worst in a decade — but blazes continue to cause problems in Kalimantan where visibility was less than 330 feet on Monday, forcing drivers to use their headlights in the daytime.

The Indonesian government has been criticized for failing to act against those responsible for the fires. Jakarta, which has been pressured by its Southeast Asian neighbors to sign a regional anti-haze treaty, says it is doing all it can.

Indonesia has the highest number of threatened species of mammals in the world, around 146, according to the World Conservation Union.

Fewer that [sic] 60,000 orangutans remain in the wild in Indonesia — nearly 90 percent of their habitat has been destroyed by illegal logging, poaching and cut-and-burn farming practices. If the rate of deforestation continues, orangutans will disappear from the wild in around a decade, experts say.

The fires came within months of the release of 42 orangutans into nearby forests, forcing many animals back to shelters and undermining years of costly rehabilitation work.

The smog, which triggered health warnings in Singapore and Malaysia this year, has plagued Southeast Asia since the 1990s.
Gone in a decade. I don't even want to contemplate that scenario! This weekend, I think I'll go to the San Diego Zoo and tell my primate friends that I'm sorry for the miriad ways that we humans find to make their lives more dangerous and horrific. I can't help but fear that, decades from now, people will look back with great remorse at how we uncaringly waived goodbye as we pushed our closest relatives in the animal kingdom over the brink.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Voting as catharsis

I've been feeling rather morose about this latest election, mostly because I failed to change my voter registration when I moved about a year ago, and I assumed that this mistake would prevent me from voting today. I was wrong. Ever since I called the San Diego County Registar of Voters earlier today and found out that, despite my boneheaded laziness, I can still perform my civic duty, I've been bouncing off the walls with eagerness and anticipation driven by six years of pent up outrage at the policies of my government. I literally could not wait to get out of work into the ballot box to exercise my political demons. Well, after returning from my local polling station--an elementary school--and (if you're in my immediate or extended family, you may want to stop reading now) voting a basically straight Democratic ticket, I'm feeling pretty damn good. As I sit here, watching live election results and listening to Rage Against the Machine, my anger is assuaged, if only for the moment.

What you reap is what you sow.

The Bible, Zach de La Rocha

Monday, November 06, 2006

Edward O. Wilson: portrait of a polymath

And now, for your reading pleasure, let me draw your attention to the latest issue ofSeed Magazine--to my knowledge, the only science publication in the world that consciously attempts to be "hip"--in which is published a fascinating piece about Edward O. Wilson, the brilliant and often controversial Harvard entomologist, and his most recent book, The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth (which, incidentally, is on my Amazon Wish List). I enjoyed the article quite a lot and would love to hear what you think about it (unless, of course, you think it sucks, in which case you can keep your negativity to yourself!).

A bit of Autumnal gloating

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Self-awareness--it's not just for primates anymore

When I look in the mirror, I am able to discern that the image I see is a reflection of myself. As long as you are not suffering from some sort of debilitating cognitive disorder (in which case you would almost certainly not be reading this), you can do the same. Other species of great apes (and possibly bottle-nosed dolphins) have the brain functions needed to associate their reflections with themselves as well.
Now, according to a new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, elephants show signs of having this ability as well:

Considered an indicator of self-awareness, mirror self-recognition (MSR) has long seemed limited to humans and apes. In both phylogeny and human ontogeny, MSR is thought to correlate with higher forms of empathy and altruistic behavior. Apart from humans and apes, dolphins and elephants are also known for such capacities. After the recent discovery of MSR in dolphins (Tursiops truncatus), elephants thus were the next logical candidate species. We exposed three Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) to a large mirror to investigate their responses. Animals that possess MSR typically progress through four stages of behavior when facing a mirror: (i) social responses, (ii) physical inspection (e.g., looking behind the mirror), (iii) repetitive mirror-testing behavior, and (iv) realization of seeing themselves. Visible marks and invisible sham-marks were applied to the elephants' heads to test whether they would pass the litmus "mark test" for MSR in which an individual spontaneously uses a mirror to touch an otherwise imperceptible mark on its own body. Here, we report a successful MSR elephant study and report striking parallels in the progression of responses to mirrors among apes, dolphins, and elephants. These parallels suggest convergent cognitive evolution most likely related to complex sociality and cooperation.

The Washington Post has more:
Elephants can recognize themselves in a mirror and use their reflections to explore hidden parts of themselves, a measure of subjective self-awareness that until now has been shown definitively only in humans and apes, researchers reported yesterday.

The findings confirm a long-standing suspicion among scientists that elephants, with their big brains, complex societies and reputation for helping ill herdmates, have a sufficiently developed sense of identity to pass the challenging "mirror self-recognition test."

[. . .]

Researchers over the years have provided body-size mirrors to hundreds of animals in zoos and other habitats. Almost always, the animals act as though the image they see is of another.

"Most animals seem incapable of learning that their behavior is the source of the behavior in the mirror," Gallup said. "They are incapable of deciphering that dualism."

By contrast, human babies get it by age 2, as do adult chimpanzees, bonobos and orangutans.

Monkeys, which are more distantly related to humans than are apes, never catch on. Indeed, the only non-ape species to come close to passing until now has been the bottlenose dolphin; it lacks the limbs to touch itself (a key part of the mirror test's final challenge) but can use mirrors to examine hidden parts of its body.

[. . .]

In a series of experiments, the elephants first explored the mirror -- reaching behind it with their trunks, kneeling before it and even trying to climb it -- gathering clues that the mirror image was just that, an image.

That was followed by an eerie sequence in which the animals made slow, rhythmic movements while tracking their reflections. Then, like teenagers, they got hooked.

All three conducted oral self-exams. Maxine, a 35-year-old female, even used the tip of her trunk to get a better look inside her mouth. She also used her trunk to slowly pull her ear in front of the mirror so she could examine it -- "self-directed" behaviors the zookeepers had never seen before.

Moreover, one elephant, Happy, 34, passed the most difficult measure of self-recognition: the mark test. The researchers painted a white X on her left cheek, visible only in the mirror. Later, after moving in and out of view of the mirror, Happy stood directly before the reflective surface and touched the tip of her trunk to the mark repeatedly -- an act that, among other insights, requires an understanding that the mark is not on the mirror but on her body.

The researchers also placed a transparent, "sham" mark that could not be seen in the mirror on Happy's right cheek, to see if the feel of that mark on the skin alone might cause her to touch that spot. It did not.

DeWaal acknowledged that the precise meaning of the test is debatable. In particular, he said, "people who work on animals that don't pass the test get upset" and tend to belittle its meaning.

But he and many others strongly suspect that the rarity of mirror self-recognition -- along with it being more common among animals reported to help other animals in need -- makes the test a good marker for a certain level of consciousness.

"I believe that all animals have some level of self-awareness, but those that pass the mirror test have more of it," de Waal said.

Marc Hauser, a Harvard biologist who has studied self-recognition in cotton-top tamarins, said that the mirror test is valuable but that other tests can also shed light on "what kinds of thoughts animals have about themselves and others."
Not so dumbo is he now, eh?

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Kent "Dr. Dino" Hovind, felon

All reasonably informed and honest Creationist-watchers (a hobby similar to bird-watching, only involving much larger amounts of schadenfreude) shouldn't need a jury to tell them that Kent Hovind, founder of Creation Science Evangelism, is both a liar and a fraud, but today, after a three hour deliberation, a jury Florida did just that:

A federal jury has convicted Kent Hovind and his wife, Jo, of tax fraud.

Hovind faces a maximum of 288 years in prison. His wife faces up to 225 years. Her charges include aiding and abetting her husband with 44 counts of evading bank-reporting requirements.
Since forming his "ministry" in 1989, Hovind has conned his way into the hearts and wallets of untold thousands of naive and unfortunate church-goers who earnestly wanted to believe that he was doing the Lord's Work. Well, reasonable people may disagree about what doing the Lord's Work might look like, but one thing is certain: as he spread the warm and fuzzy Gospel of Young-Earth Creationism, Hovind conveniently managed to forget that part about rendering unto Caesar, and now Caesar's come to collect the debt. There's a lesson here--you can lie to children and swindle the ignorant, but never, ever try to cheat the Taxman; he always wins.

I know I shouldn't have a smile on my face right now, that there's something wrong with taking pleasure in the misfortune of others, even major-league assholes like Hovind, but I can't help it. I confess--I'm a terrible person, and this piece of justice is so terribly sweet that I just can't keep from grinning.