Tuesday, August 24th 2004

Vervet Monkeys
posted @ 6:09 pm in [ ]
I just learned something really interesting about vervet monkeys and languge. Apparently, vervet monkeys have two kinds of vocalizations: soft and hard. The soft vocalizations are kind of the normal chatter, mumbling and quieter vocal sounds of grooming and everyday social life, while the hard vocalizations (screeches, loud chatters, etc.) are exclusively warnings.

The warnings are also predator-specific, and there are three of them, one for each kind of predator that poses a threat to the vervets in the wild. But wait, it gets better. The warning sound for “snake” is a chatter–a sort of low chut-chut-chut, for “eagle”, it’s a scream, and for “leopard”, it’s a growl. How cool is that? They’ve developed concept-linked words for the predators, based on the sounds the predators make.

But wait, it gets even better. When the “snake” warning is heard, all the monkeys look down at the ground. They either head for the trees, or they gang up on the snake, depending on their assessment of their chances. When the “eagle” warning is given, all the monkeys look up at the sky, and then head for the bushes. When the “leopard” alarm is raised, the monkeys immediately run like hell for the trees without stopping to look for anything at all. In other words, they have a shared system of concepts about the nature and habits of these predators, their relative deadliness, and what they must do to avoid being caught by them, and they communicate it successfully. This isn’t just vocalization, it’s language.

It gets even better than that, though. Apparently, there have been recorded instances of adaptation of this language set. One account is of a vervet who has been snuck up upon by an eagle. The other vervets see that the eagle is almost upon him, and they just have time to scream a warning to save him. They unanimously all scream “leopard”. How cool is that? They’re not merely naming what they see; they know exactly what to do to elicit a life-saving response. Their colleague ducks under the canopy just in time.

Primates rock.

Tuesday, August 17th 2004

posted @ 12:44 pm in [ ]
Flashes of light woke her and she turned over onto her back, the vynil back seat of the ‘vert squawking beneath her. Another flash of light let her know what had woken her a few sleepy seconds before. As she started to sit up to look for approaching headlights, a crackling sound nearby broke through her sleepy haze to tell her what was happening. She lay on her back looking up through the driver’s side window of the back seat and smiled. Lightning. Rumbling thunder became booming thunder as the storm moved swiftly toward her position, carrying with it the faint hiss of… rain. Droplets began to hit the window, but she could still see a few stars. She smiled again. As if a thunderstorm, however rare and beautiful, could obscure every last one of so many millions of stars.

She got out of the ‘vert, leaving it unlocked. Surely she was the only creature for miles around who could drive, or even open a car door. Checking the ground carefully for the right places to put her feet, she made her way to the edge of the arroyo, and sat down. The drenching rain began to come down more softly as the drops became too large to pelt. Each drop left a near-perfect 3-inch circle on the starfish sweatshirt until the dry spots were small oddly shaped slivers, and then they disappeared completely. The desert normally swallowed all sound–she loved it in part for how quiet it was. Tonight, the sound of rain and thunder blocked everything else out. Down at the bottom of the arroyo, a little trickle started, fed by the rivulets spilling down its walls. It expanded to a small stream over the course of the storm, and she watched it pulse to life.

How mystical it was, she thought, that water would just fall from the sky. What a remarkable place to be, a unique planet, that defying the other spheres’ extremes, managed to have water storms. The rain soaked her clothes, her skin, her hair, the earth around where she sat, the nearby plants, the ‘vert, the dusty track that had led her to this spot, everything. It washed the dust off her and swept it down the arroyo to be carried off and eventually returned to the desert when the arroyo dried out again.

Eventually, the rain stopped. It was still dark, but the darkness was paler. The sky was still, but the ground and the plants began to hum with life. Toward the bottom of the arroyo, several small creatures came out to lap at the impromptu creek while it ran by. It was too dark to see them well, but she could see and hear tiny commotions as they went about their business. Perhaps they were mice or small rabbits. Mammals almost certainly–she could barely make out a tattoo of delicate padded feet. She sat very still so she wouldn’t startle them, hoping that the recent drenching would mask her alien scent. The desert always reminded her to be still and listen.

The moon came out then, so bright she could have read by it. The shadows of rocks and plants and marauding mice doubled the landscape’s cast of characters, and their sudden activity. The soft diligent creatures below her didn’t seem to notice at first, but they suddenly stopped, all at once. She could barely make out dozens of tiny pink ears from a few yards away, standing straight up, the size of kernels of corn.

Then suddenly, she felt it too. Accustomed to a different habitat, her senses weren’t as honed as those of the mice, but something else was there, behind her, very close to the tip of her still shadow. She turned her head slowly, still not wanting to make any sudden movements. There, in the ten feet between the ‘vert and her right shoulder, was a small, slender coyote. The moon silvered his fur and greened his eyes, and he just sat there, still and dry, next to the exaggerated end of her chin on the ground behind her. The mice had silently scattered, and the desert around her was going quiet again.

The coyote let the end of a bubblegum-pink tongue show through his teeth and panted very softly, like a dog, but he was still a different kind of animal. Even in the dark just beyond the reach of headlights, a racoon is not a cat, a fox is not a dog, and their belongingness to the wild shows in the quality of their movements, as if they still know how to make the air swirl around their unbrushed coats. The coyote was like that: a relative to familiar creatures of her world, but very much at home here in his. You could put a coyote in a comfortable enclosure, feed it by hand, even make friends with it, but it would never, ever be a dog. She looked down at her own hands, at the pads of her fingers and the undersides of knuckles. She looked at her knee, bent and sticking out as she sat, as the coyote’s were. She turned back to the coyote, who seemed to grin, a gleaming sharp triangular grin, and peered pointedly into her big green eyes. He panted a little, like he was laughing softly, then with a flick of that soft pink tongue, stood up and loped away, at an unhurried, even pace. She watched him go, the tips of his fur glowing in the moonlight.

Tuesday, August 10th 2004

posted @ 11:41 am in [ ]
So today I’m home because I’m sick. I feel a little bit guilty about it, because I changed my schedule around at Matt’s request so I could cover someone else’s shift. But if I went into the shop today, I’d do a lousy job because I feel terrible, plus I’d get everyone else sick, so I’m trying to tell myself that one day of the shop being really short-handed is better than it being short-handed for a week or two because I didn’t stay home and got everyone sick.

I’m going to take a nap shortly, but right now I’m sort of enjoying having the downtime. I’m almost relieved to be sick. I can catch up on some stuff.

One thing I didn’t blow off today, sick or not, was voting. Colorado had its primary today, and I could be on my friggin’ deathbed and still vote. I’d call up my favorite candidate’s headquarters and ask for someone to come give my dying ass a ride to the polls. I don’t even care that only a few offices are even contested between Democratic candidates at this point. Like the sticker on my shirt says, “I Voted!”

I’m pleased to see that Colorado seems to be waking up a bit politically. I saw a fair amount of streetcorner campaign sign waving over the last few weeks. No one at the polls in my neighborhood, though. I miss the hustle and bustle of Election Day in Massachusetts. You’d have to wade through a veritable papa-razzi-like THRONG of vote pleaders. Please consider my candidate. You’d almost have to elbow past them on the red carpet area there, because YOU, the VOTER, are the STAR of the day.

My students in my critical thinking class are curious about politics, too. They’ve been asking me a lot of questions, some of which are rather complicated and sophisticated, which is really cool. Fortunately, I’m one of, like, a hundred people in this time zone who knows the answers. What I’m learning from them, though, is that history and civics courses are all but dead in the American high school, which is just about the lousiest thing that could possibly happen. There is NO EXCUSE for any person of voting age in the United States of America not to understand the Electoral College, and probably about 90% of my undergraduate class didn’t. Now, I am emphatically not blaming the students–it’s not their fault they weren’t properly taught, and they had no control AT ALL over their high school curricula in any case. It does beg the question, though, of what the hell else was so important that their schools couldn’t introduce them to the basics of good citizenship.

Lack of understanding of the democratic process is a disaster of Hindenberg-esque proportions. There are terribly few younger folks in public office these days, and you know what that means: a sharp decline in quality of our leadership with WAY less competition. It does make me think about running for office, though. Phillip keeps saying, “A couple of Somerville ward bosses and we’d have this whole state wrapped up.” I’ve been to Democratic party events in Colorado. I’d have to agree.