Archive for May, 2014

The Best Part of Waking Up

Posted on May 11, 2014. Filed under: Animals, Nature | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , |

…is not having to actually get up.

Post No. 1 in a series of articles I callTales from my darkest ‘ell

I called it ‘ell.  It was not particularly descriptive of my work environment, but, the private joke kinda’ lightened my mood.  I’ve worked the night shift in a number of different capacities and locations over the past couple decades, and yes, doing unnatural things before daylight (such as being awake and up before sunrise) sets up a tiring tedium.  After a while, you start looking for ways to stay alert and interested in the moment.

Actually, the workplace really was ell — that was the shape of the building.  Outside, a concrete apron and a roof overhang of 8 feet formed the inside of the ell, bordering the main parking lot on two sides.  A picnic table, nestled in the 90 degree corner, constituted the break area.  It was here, often alone, that I got a glimpse of the night world outside normal human sleep time.

The small collection of white dots at the edge of the apron was indicative of an often used roosting spot above.  Yet, all I could see above it was a small electric junction box with a 4″ long conduit protruding from it; since it was flush against the wall, it could not be a roost.  I started to routinely check the area for any birds, finally noting a single little sparrow flitting around under the awning near sunset.

On a midnight break, I finally had my answer to the poop-a-dot question.  Directly above the drop zone, in the angle formed by the little junction box and along the groove formed by the round conduit extension and the wall, the little sparrow had wedged itself for an undisturbed night’s sleep.

In all the months I worked there, I never saw the sparrow tuck itself in for the night.  It always waited until I was not watching before it would trundle off to its little hidey.  Even without that self-awareness mirror, it is evident the bird was acutely aware of itself and that it needed to be careful to protect itself.

Just before sunrise, the air above and around my little bit of ell would come alive with various birds, including hordes of sparrows, chattering and flitting.  All these guys must have read the little adage about the early bird and the worm.  Much to my delight, I learned that humans are not the only recalcitrant risers before sunrise.

Between the break table and the wall at the inside of the ell, there was a space of about 3 feet.  I was sitting on that end, facing outward into the parking lot.  I noticed a small object coming right toward me on a steadily descending glide path.  Any second now, I expected the sparrow to hit the brakes after seeing me and redirect its path elsewhere.  It did not, continuing to a smooth landing on the sidewalk between the table and wall.  Then — not giving me the least bit of consideration — fast walked to the inside angle of the ell.  Once there, facing the wall, it tucked its head under a wing and settled in, oblivious to my perilous proximity.  Apparently, morning came a lot sooner for this tiny creature than it had been prepared for.

My third ell-ish encounter was similar to that, without the smooth landing.  I was standing at the edge of the concrete apron, sort of hanging 10, awaiting the dawn.  Again, there is the approaching silhouette of an early riser, but, it leveled out at about 30 inches above the pavement and slowly glided past me well within arm’s reach.  My first thought was, “this little guy is going to make a quick stop just before the wall and snatch a bug off the brick,” a trick I had seen grackles do.  But, no air brakes were deployed.  The little critter went head first into the wall, and dropped in a heap onto the sidewalk.

This was not the first time I had seen birds crash like that, but, usually, it happens against glass barriers.  It is frequently a fatal error.  But, this little fella got to its feet in a few seconds, shook its head a few times, and started walking back toward the edge of the apron.  Obviously dazed, it struck a pose that mimicked mine, toes teasing the edge of the curb, and facing the parking lot.  About the only difference between us were our head heights (5.5 feet vs. 2.5 inches) above sea level, and the fact that I had not just bashed my head into that brick wall.  I was hanging 10, it was hanging 6.  Sans the brick wall, I knew this little guy would never be caught dead standing a mere 18 inches from me.  So, I started talking to it, like we were long-time buds just shootin’ the early morning breeze.  I could tell it heard my droning voice since it kept looking toward me.  I don’t think we got more than a minute of quality time together, ’cause it finally figured out this was not Kansas anymore, and took off like demons were after it.  I had to wait for the bell at shift’s end before I could flee my demons.

Enthusiasts of the whole “natural order” hypothesis proclaim that Nature — indeed, all of Existence — is a precision machine that moves its various components in a grand procession of order across the Cosmos.  I think I speak for a large number of smaller components in this “precision machine” when I say, “It just ain’t so!” 

That NOCTURNAL > DIURNAL transition switch has a definite herky-jerky characteristic to it, and needs a little work.  Until it is ironed out, we unfortunate and disenfranchised membership of “the perfect order” will continue to rely on the snooze-button, un-cut coffee (more than 4 cups a day) and banging of heads against walls just to get clear of sunrise.

 

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Mirror, Mirror on the Wall

Posted on May 9, 2014. Filed under: Nature, Psychology | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , |

…who is the smartest one of all?

Aw, shucks!  That is just too easy.  Why, it’s Homo smart sapiens, of course.

Your proverb for todayKnow thyself.

(It’s Greek; a Delphic maxim from the Temple of Apollo at Delphi.  That means it is very, very old so it must be highly respected.  Actually, I would not have thought those old Greeks would speak in King James’ lingo.)

Your words for the day:

  • Narcissus = a Greek-myth guy with a thing for himself
  • mirror = a reflective surface that says, “Right back atcha, big guy.”

The vaunted, and much invoked, mirror test for self-awareness is an exceptional choice for scientist to use in validating their superior observations about the lesser smarts of other life forms.  Of course, the test is useless without defining the parameters of “self-awareness.”  Who better to define those parameters than the League of The Great Learned?  What better standards to use than those that define The Great Learned themselves?  I mean, they are the epitome of H. smart sap., are they not?

“Okay, Lesser Beings, here is the mirror that Narcissistic types (such as we scientists) like to drool at.  Do you understand that you are beholding your very own self?  C’mon, show us the drool.”

  • The lizard, who gets attacked by almost anything its size or bigger, has only a split second to respond to the presence of another.  It has no time to see if all its scales are in place or which angle presents his best profile (take that, Geico gecko).  There is also the matter of lizard social protocol that must be adhered to, and, since the image looks like a good matchup to himself, he figures he can take the other guy and goes on the offense.  This lizard may not give any thought to killer asteroids or last days on the Mayan calendar — big subjects for the science dudes — but you can bet your sweet bippy he gives a lot of thought to the care and maintenance of HIS ass.  To be concerned with HIS, he has to be aware of HIMSELF.
  • The pasture cow, who lives day in and day out with a herd of very peaceful look-alikes, says, “Ho hum.  If you want me to show interest here, slip in an image of the Big Bull out there and sprinkle this thing with some of that cologne he uses.  Now, that’s something I could stand still for.  Otherwise, get this thing out of my face and get me another wad o’ cud.”
  • Tomcat domesticus, full of tomcat hormones, might go for the glass like the lizard; yet, that same tomcat, relaxing in the shade and giving his best impersonation of The Great Sphinx (over there in the mother of all sand boxes) with tail stretched out behind him, can take time from his busy schedule to fiddle with the last 3 inches of that tail.  It stands like a snake, tip twirling slowly, then dipping to the side toward the ground, then back up.  Tomcat looks like a stone lawn ornament, but, you know he is having a good time.  One short kitten leg away from the tom’s twitching extremity is a kitten, and it just knows he can swat that wiggling thing.  For quite a while, this tableau continues.  The tomcat, looking ever so stoic, knows full well the excitement he is creating in the kitten’s mind, and he is enjoying the game as much as the kitten.  The tomcat knows who he is and where his personal boundaries are.  He is aware of HIMSELF.

I could do this for quite a while, given the number of different creatures that have survived on this planet for a lot longer than H. smart sap., but I hear that, for maximum effect, you repeat something no more than 3 times.  The law of diminishing returns, or something like that.  Maybe I heard it from Johnny Carson.

A long, long time ago (if you knew my age, you might want to add one more “long” in there) I devised a couple of mental exercises to illustrate self-awareness in other creatures.  Now, don’t tell me that mental projections prove nothing, ’cause H. smart sap., sub-species science dudes, have built veritable cults around an imaginary dead/alive cat* and an imaginary razor** purported to be so sharp it can slice intangible arguments right down the exact middle.  My tests are a little different…   they can actually be tested in real-time with real subjects.  If real-time is opted, these tests for self-awareness can only be performed by real representatives of The Great Learned.  Only they can truly appreciate the outcomes.

TEST 1.  THE SILVERBACK CHALLENGESetup:  A line of 3 strong cages.  Cages Number 1 and 3 each contain a very contented silverback gorilla.  Cage Number 2 in the middle is empty.  Our observer/actor (preferably a Great Learned One with a Ph. D. in something or other that sounds real smart) has been outfitted with a medium weight baseball bat, a note-book and pencil for note taking, and a hit of Valium — it is the humane thing to do.  Oh, yeah!  And a mirror for later reference.  The test proceeds thusly:

  • The observer/actor enters Cage Number 3, walks over to the contented silverback, who looks at him with only slight interest.
  • The observer/actor lifts the bat and attempts to get a base hit using the silverback’s head as a baseball.
  • This is the critical part:  The observer/actor will now take detailed notes as to whether the gorilla in Cage Number 3 reacts as though it was the gorilla way over in Cage Number 1 that took the bat upside his head.
  • If the gorilla in Cage Number 3 has NO sense of self-awareness, the observer/actor can exit the cage, leaving the mirror for the bleeding gorilla to play with later.
  • If the gorilla in Cage Number 3 DOES have a sense of self, the observer/actor can keep the mirror so that someone else can hold if for him at the hospital where he can see what self-awareness really looks like.

TEST 2:  THE FIRE ANT CHALLENGE.  Setup:  2 fire ant mounds 10 feet apart.  One observer/actor as in test number 1, equipped with that note-book and pencil and an assistant holding a syringe full of a local anesthetic.  The test proceeds thusly:

  • The observer/actor walks up to one of the mounds, his choice.  Removing the shoe and sock from one foot and rolling up the corresponding pant leg, he vigorously and with great gusto stomps the selected mound back into the ground.
  • The observer/actor leaves his bare-naked foot and leg in the middle of the destruction, and, lifting that note-book and pencil, takes detailed notes on whether the ants in the stomped nest reacted as though it was the OTHER NEST, 10 feet away that got the crap stomped out of it.
  • A Giventhe ants in the stomped mound would flunk the mirror test, if anyone could figure out how to administer one to them.
  • If the disrupted colony has no sense of SELF, the nervous assistant will not have to moonlight as an EMT.

A human-vanity mirror test to determine whether other life forms are self-aware, science dudes stating emphatically what a life form IS or IS NOT thinking…   give me a break.

__________________________________

*Schrödinger’s cat                      **Occam’s razor

 

 

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What Is Man…

Posted on May 5, 2014. Filed under: Nature, Philosophy | Tags: , , , , , , , , , |

…that you should even consider us, or our descendants that you would stay with them through the whole of time?  We are neither Deity nor Angel, yet, you have accorded us your utmost respect,” said the created to its Creator.

NOT A DIRECT QUOTE — like you couldn’t tell.  That is strictly my interpretation; for the original wording, you are directed to whatever language in which the poet wrote, or the King James Version of The Holy Bible (Psalms 8:4) which, itself, is an abridgement of the original, or to any one of about 6 different versions of the original original.  This is my blog, so, for the moment, you are stuck with my interpretation.

Your words for the day:

  • sentient = sensate; the state of being aware of input from the senses
  • self-aware = an entity’s knowledge that it is separate from everything around it
  • Life’s Prime Directive = every living thing shall attempt to bend circumstances and events (natural and behavioral) to further its own narrow interests in the struggle to survive one more day

Generally, religions concede that Man is of the most inconsequential status in comparison to Deity.  Yet, since Deity accords Man consideration, Man boasts that it is extra special and is the pinnacle of all creation.  With that self-anointing, other creatures are deigned to be totally worthless except to be put to work, eaten or converted into shoes.  Deity gives Man the Insignificant the widest latitude of respect, but, that honored piece of Cosmic flotsam cannot spare even a respectful appraisal, let alone decent treatment, of its fellow travelers through this tortured existence that not one living thing has asked for.

Humans (via The Great Learned) long shouted that only they are sentient.  All other creatures are biological automatons living out their meager lifespans in a dance of instinctive rote so that Man the Insignificant can pretend that it is Deity over them.  Only humans, so the mantra goes, had feelings about existence and could introspectively mull just what it all means.  Animals (everything not human) made cries of pain, but, that was just an instinctive reaction designed to help them live longer to serve Man the Insignificant just a little more.  And characterizing their wails and whimpers as evidence of self-pity was simply humanizing mere animal reaction.  Common folk who lived and worked with non-humans recognized and responded to this mutual inter-species communication.  But, the Great Learned, from the massive towers required to house their massively superior intelligences, just shook their heads and said, “Tut, tut” to the poor, less intelligent masses way down below.

Anyway, that was PLAN A.  Research over the past few decades have shown that many of the behavioral and intellectual traits of humans are shared by an awful lot of non-human beings.  The Great Learned has had to concede that many besides humans are, indeed, sentient.  Lest you think, however, that the Great Learned has admitted that the common masses of humanity are as smart, or even smarter, than they, behold…

The New and Improved PLAN B.  Slicing the “self-aware” implication from the term sentient, the Great Learned slapped a coat of paint on it, mounted it on wheels and gave it its own sitcom.  “Sure, other creatures can feel things just as we do, but, only humans can really think deep about it.”  Don’t think I’m making this up as I go:

  • Darwin, The Descent of Man… :  No animal is self-conscious…   on such matters as whence he comes or whither he will go, or what is life and death, and so forth.”
  • Marc Bekoff Ph. D., Psychology Today, http://www.psychologytoday.com/em/30619.  He said a lot, so I will summarize:  Some animals have self-awareness, there are degrees of self-awareness, more of a sense of mine-ness such as my scent, my buddy, my food;  he said just about as much as he could without saying that “animals have an innate sense of self.”  On the surface, it appears that scientists are embracing the new concepts when, in fact, for every inch of the old way they give up, they add 2 inches of hedging.

It has long been my personal conviction that any life form having to make at least one decision to maintain existence is sentient and self-aware, at least for the duration of that decision making.  The scope of that sentience may not be as grandiose as that experienced by Man the Insignificant (who, by the by, is so great that it can predict the end of the whole world in the far, far distant year of 2012), but, that entity must KNOW WHEN to make its single death-avoiding decision.  Doing it right when it is called for is often the factor allowing continued existence.  What is the point to being sensate if one cannot react in a timely and appropriate manner to the incoming information?  Why would one sidestep an imminent danger if one were not aware of a threat to its personal boundaries?

Sentience, like an object in sunlight, casts its own shadow — that of self-awareness.  Simply put, it means that a life-form receives input from its environment and recognizes that it comes from beyond its corporeal boundaries.  In response to Life’s Prime Directive, that informed entity attempts to maintain its distinctive boundary for as long as it can before its physical components succumb to re-absorption by the reality all around.

There is no point to being sentient without self-awareness, nor can there be self-awareness without being sensate.  It neither diminishes nor enhances the fact of my personal existence to hold that even one-celled animals possess self-awareness, at least to the degree that their available sensory input permits.

I am what I am, they are what they are.  No amount of superior intellectual acrobatics will change that.

 

 

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