Archive for June, 2010

29
Jun
10

Corvid-Human speech

I happened to overhear some crows in my yard this morning, and I eavesdropped their conversation as they picked through the birdseed. I was struck by some of the vocalizations I heard, some that fell beyond the normal loud squawky caws and alarms and that sounded much less birdlike in their pace and tone. Not a high pitch that is probably impossible for any normal person to emulate, let alone hear, but a low grumbling tone about the same pitch as a cat’s or small dog’s growl. We all know parrots can emulate human speech, but there are cases in many other species of birds, including crows, of individuals replicating our vocalizations.
I would imagine that more than ever crows are within earshot of human speech. What if there are several generations of a population (murders) that live the majority of their lives under such conditions? Will enough of the birds pick up on human speech in order for their offspring to learn it from their parents, even if all the human sources ceased before their hatching? Can they understand any of the human intent in the words?
I think it’s likely that at minimum they will integrate the words by a common understanding among the population, and perhaps by chance they will assign a definition to their word which we can recognize as based on our definition. And if there is some measure of genuine understanding on both sides, then you might wonder whether that is some sort of positive quality, a function of the conditions of each population. That would imply a common element to speech between crows in humans, in this case manifested by one adapting and changing in response to the other, while the larger population forces an ever increasing overlap.

27
Jun
10

Please Fire Thomas Friedman

Look at this hack job:

Ignoring the Tsunami by Ari Shavit

War, Timeout, War, Time … by Thomas Friedman

Thomas Friedman stole his whole column from Shavit. He read Shavit’s article, stole the content and the main rhetorical conceit, and then made it much much worse. Friedman manages to empty the stolen article of value by failing to read irony, flattening nuance, and mistaking a critique of politically-blind decadence as a celebration of Israeli prosperity.

Friedman also seems incapable of understanding that ‘Arabs’ are not a monolithic entity, as that would require thinking outside of simple binaries. This is demonstrated by his incredibly poor sketch of Israeli history. He claims:

The history of Israeli-Arab relations since 1948 can be summarized in one sentence: “War, timeout, war, timeout, war, timeout, war, timeout, war, timeout. …” What differentiates Israel from the Arabs and the Palestinians is how much more productive Israel has been during its timeouts.

This historical ‘analysis’ is the one point at which Friedman strays from his source text. Let us leave aside the fact that his “one sentence” is not a sentence at all and concentrate on his outrageously offensive claim about productivity. I find it hard to express how awful this line is. The implication is that if they were only more productive, the Palestinians would be living in similar conditions to the Israelis. Not even the staunchest supporter of the Israeli state can believe such a claim. It should be obvious, but apparently (or conveniently) Thomas Friedman doesn’t realize how difficult it is for the Palestinians to be as ‘productive’ as Israelis when they live under an embargo in an occupied territory with a decimated infrastructure and significantly less foreign aid than their counterparts.

I was going to end this with one more kick at Friedman for his blatant copy-stealing, but I’ve changed my mind. Given that his original thoughts tend towards oversimplification and victim-blaming crypto-racism, Thomas Friedman really ought to stick to plagiarism.

21
Jun
10

“it shall raze again from the ashes”

I thought my fellow Ghost Islanders might be interested in this article in the New York Times about proposals to raze some of Detroit’s most blighted neighborhoods in an effort to move towards a more viable urban structure than the one that currently exists.  I think that for someone who is unfamiliar or only vaguely familiar with this debate in Detroit, the article does a good job at sketching out the various rifts and factions at play: urban planners, wary citizens, wary and angry younger activists, and of course a criminally corrupt (literally) political machine standing like a cement wall in between the way things are now and any actual progress.  I should note here that David Bing, Detroit’s current mayor, seems to have some distance from the real undercurrent of corruption that plagues the city council, aldermen, and various other appointed offices, and the NYTimes doesn’t really do him any favors by pointing out that he refused to comment on a incredibly complex and possibly damaging issue.

I have to say that the urban homesteading and return to wilderness approach sounds really tempting but it’s also really utopian and a little pie-eyed and would need some serious federal intervention to work properly.  Right now, anything that the city touches just hemorrhages money and gets so woefully mismanaged that it not only fails to solve the original problem but usually generates new problems as well.  This is less true now than it was in the 80s and 90s, when some truly forehead-slappingly bad ideas were implemented (see: the People Mover) but giving the city domain over any sort of project like the ones mentioned in the article is dangerous.  Also, the demolitions in general are pretty controversial because some really beautiful and historically important buildings are getting caught up in the wave and are getting torn down with little or no input from residents.

The idea of large-scale demolition underlines one of the biggest problems Detroit faces as it makes this bold next move, however (and it is preparing to make a move, for sure).  A lot of the buildings that people want to save have long ago become irrevocably damaged by water and mold and corrosion, and would survive only as facades if they were ever to be re-occupied at tremendous cost.  This idea that it is a giant expanse of buildings ready to be squatted in and commandeered is only partially true, and becomes more false each year that passes as more and more buildings fall into terminal neglect.  Many of the lots could very likely contain measurable levels of lead and heavy metals that would render yields from urban farms harmful (although this could be worked around).  There isn’t some sort of quick, amazing solution, and the idea of little burghs interconnected by greenways is much more likely to occur by passive forces than active ones.  And, obviously, the idea of razing neighborhoods and moving people to new areas is logistically problematic and doesn’t really have too good of a track record.

But, there is an element of it that is tantalizing, and on a good day Detroit has to be one of the most fascinating places in this country even now, before these grand plans begin.  I think that most likely things will proceed haphazardly and sort of meander their way along. The idea of riding a bike from a cluster of gothic skyscrapers through a pheasant-filled forest to an old late-Victorian neighborhood to catch a show or something is pretty amazing, but I think the reality is going to be a little less arcadian and a little more “Escape from LA”.  There is always the chance that the federal/philanthropic combo will come through with a major works project to get something like the ideas discussed in the article moving but that also seems unlikely, especially for the immediate future.

19
Jun
10

easy virtual listening

Here is a bit of soft magnetic rock, played with virtual photons

17
Jun
10

unfair advantage

So either the age on ESPN’s World Cup player bio pages is automatically calculated from the birth date which in this case was input incorrectly, or the Slovenians have a distinct advantage in fielding a time-travelling, -17870 year old  midfielder (presumably here to disrupt some horrific event before it occurs) in Friday’s match-up with the United States

14
Jun
10

astronomical & meteorological photos

Taken with my razr and reflector scope

The Sun

Venus

Luna

Saturn

Lightning

Just before Sunset

Fog rolling in

08
Jun
10

“swing you sinners” (and: world cup)

This cartoon starts out as pretty standard Krazy Kat style fare, but moves sort of like a helium balloon that slips out of your hand, getting further and further from reality until by the end it is almost unrecognizable.  Skip ahead to the graveyard part at 2:15 if your patience for watching a cartoon dog chase a bird around a tree stump wears thin (although I can’t imagine how that is possible). Fleisher Studios also produced an illustrated explanation of the Theory of Relativity that I’m hoping to track down sometime.


Also: For the benefit of friends and family who have an interest in this year’s World Cup but don’t know much about the teams, I’ve made a shared Google calendar (available here) that has most of the game times and channels and a paragraph or two describing what to watch for in each game (times in CST).  I’ve only completed it through the weekend so far but everyone else in my department is in a three hour long meeting, so I stand to make some progress today.  I could go on about the significance of it being in Africa, the subplots, whatever, but I’m not sure if this is the right venue.




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