Language, animals, and music

A few interesting bits regarding language that came before my eyes recently:

First a new study reveals that the "Putty-nosed monkey" (Cercopithecus nictitans) monkeys can combine simple primitive calls into more meaningful sequences. The evolution of grammar?

Second, studies of prairie dogs show that they have "the most sophisticated communication system that anyone has shown in animals", including a capability to create new terms for things they've never seen before.

Finally, this article discusses the theories of Steven Mithen, professor of early prehistory at the University of Reading, that early hominids ancestors had a musical culture that strongly influenced the development of language.

Steven Colbert at White House Correspondent's Dinner

You must see this, or at least read the transcript, or with analysis from Chris Durang here. In the midst of the Washington press corps, standing right next to W, Colbert let 'em all have it:

Now, I know there are some polls out there saying this man has a 32% approval rating. But guys like us, we don't pay attention to the polls. We know that polls are just a collection of statistics that reflect what people are thinking in "reality." And reality has a well-known liberal bias.

Contemplating nuclear power

Discussion over at Slashdot about nuclear power, touched off by this piece in the Washington Post. (See also this response the Daily Kos: "Patrick Moore is a paid consultant for the mining, logging, biotech and energy industries, and putting him out as "ex-Greenpeace" is a lot like calling Scooter Libby an "ex-Hill staffer.")

Some excerpts from my posts on the topic:


Is fission less dangerous to the environment than coal? Perhaps. If it were a choice between only between building more coal plants and building fission ones, it's possible that fission might win out. (Though I think it would have to depend of the specifics of the technologies and implementations involved.)

But that's the wrong question.

At best, fission is still a stop-gap: supplies of fissionables are limited, on the order of a century or two at most, perhaps much less. So is it not more reasonable to divert resources to solving the problem right - with fusion reseach, renewables (i.e., using that big fusion reactor in the sky, including ideas like orbital photovoltaics) and better energy efficiency - than to build fission reactors and [push] the problem onto our great-grandchildren? (Or rather, for us non-breeders, our friends' great-grandchildren?)

[The Moore editorial] mentions the Iran situation only to gloss over it, but there are massive security concerns with fission technology.

Also [the Moore editorial] is inaccurate in talking about nuclear waste; the problem is not the U and Pu in spent fuel, which can be processed and reused, but thorium, radium, radon, and radioactive lead isotopes.

Is some of the opposition to fission irrational? Yes. But so is some of its support, based on an almost romantic notion of "man harnassing the mighty power of the atom!"

Americans don't elect Senators to the Presidency (Letter to the Editor, Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

On a topic I've covered before: Letter to the Editor, Atlanta Journal-Constitution:

Regarding Hillary Clinton and the race for the White House ["If Clinton runs in '08, can she win?", April 9]: no, Clinton can't win.

The reason has nothing to do with her being a woman, or her position on the issues, or her relation to Bill Clinton.

Americans simply don't elect Senators to the Presidency.

Happy Yuri's Night!

April 12th is the 45th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin's space flight. In 1961 he made a single orbit in a flight lasting 108 minutes, becoming the first human being in space.

I'm celebrating with a beer at a bar in Fell's Point, but all over the world more organized celebrations are taking place. (Even on Antarctica!)

Looking up at the full moon in the clear spring sky, I think of how at liftoff, Yuri shouted, "Poyekhali!" - "Let's go!" Here's hoping we, as a species, do.

Karate news

Hello friends! As many of you know, for the past few months I've been training to test for my fourth degree black belt in karate.

I'm happy to say that last weekend, in an all-night test at the headquarters of the World Seido Karate Organization in New York, I completed that process and was promoted to yondan.

I want to thank all of you for your support over the years. Sometimes it all connects up in unexpected ways...a lesson on poetry pays off on the dojo floor; or some simple remark by a friend gives you the confidence you need to stick with it.

So thanks. (And I might actually have some free time now to get out and see some of you I haven't seen in a while! :-) )

-Tom
(now, "Sensei Tom" to his students :-) )

"You did not place your hand on the Constitution and swear to uphold the Bible."

A beautiful political moment: March 1st in Annapolis, a hearing on a proposed constitutional ban on equal protection for gay and lesbian couples was taking place. Professor Jamie Raskin, from the law school of American University, testified againt this piece of crap.

Apparenly right-wing dingbat Senator Nancy Jacobs stood up and shouted: "Mr. Raskin, my Bible says marriage is only between a man and a woman. What do you have to say about that?" To which Raskin replied: "Senator, when you took your oath of office, you placed your hand on the Bible and swore to uphold the Constitution. You did not place your hand on the Constitution and swear to uphold the Bible."

Coffee: Heart trouble for some, pick-me-up for others

AP reports on a study showing that some people may have a genetic trait that makes them "slow caffeine metabolizers", which for them makes coffee consumption increase the risk of heart attack.

This genetic variation may explain why there have been such mixed results in studies about caffeine and heart disease.

British bars selling sex toys - in vending machines

Love that European sensibility about sex: bars and nightclubs in London and other British cities have begun selling sex toys such as mini-vibrators out of vending machines.

The company has also has exported about 20 of the machines to Italy and about 10 to the United States - that should be interesting, given our sexual politics these days...

"Constraint therapy" for stroke victims may help them regain function

This AP story concerns a fascinating therapy for stroke victims who lost partial use of one arm.

Their strong arm was restrained during two weeks of intensive therapy, forcing them to use the weakened one, and to "rewire" the brain. Most people saw significant improvement.

As the cliche goes, use it or lose it!

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