Monday, March 30, 2009

‘There’s so much negativity around the male, butch mentality – they’re so uptight.’

From a Paste Magazine interview with Kevin Barnes (creative force behind the musical artists Of Montreal):

“A lot of people assume [Kevin] Barnes is gay – or at least bisexual – because, well, he wears fishnets and makeup on stage. But that’s not the case. ‘I just like acting really fruity,’ he says. ‘I guess I just don’t really have a sense of, “this is the proper way to be.”’

“When Barnes was in high school, he thought that the world would be better off if all men were gay. ‘There’s so much negativity around the male, butch mentality – they’re so uptight,’ he explains. ‘Gay men seemed more open-minded, tolerant, and just cooler. And it seemed like this magical, arty world I wanted to be a part of. I was so disappointed when I realized I wasn’t attracted to men physically!’”

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

when a parrot loves a graduate student

There were a lot things that happened socially among the humans and the parrots in Irene Pepperberg’s communication studies that were not presented in her scientific papers. Alex’s sexual orientation, for instance.

“[I]n general Alex preferred guys, especially tallish guys with longish hair, like Spencer [one of the graduate students who worked with the project]. Alex would often pad around the Tucson lab, looking for Spencer. When Spencer picked him up, Alex would run up his arm, perch on his shoulder, and perform the Grey’s mating dance. Spencer was the only person Alex called by name. He used to say, ‘Come here, Ser.’”

Among the mating behaviors of the African Grey Parrot is food sharing – or regurgitation. When besotted, Alex would barf on your shoulder – provided you were a tall hot dude with long hair.

“A favorite excursion was to a small lobby close to the lab. … Students passing on the staircase below the window were oblivious of Alex’s rapt attention to their comings and goings and to the cheerful whistles he produced for their benefit. He liked to wolf-whistle at boys who walked through the lobby, much to the consternation of the girl students tending him.”

source: Alex and Me: how a scientist and a parrot discovered a hidden world of animal intelligence – and formed a deep bond in the process by Irene M. Pepperberg

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

why do birds sing?

Is Oliver Sacks right? Is grooving to the beat a uniquely human behavior, one that no other animal approximates? When he said that I did wonder why the animals that didn’t pass the test were elephants and horses and dogs – none of them known for their native musics – when there are animals that sing. Birds, mostly. But whales, too, are known for their deep immersion in a sound world and some (humpbacks, famously) are known to sing. Yet neither birds nor whales are mentioned in Musicophilia.

Wait. Birds aren’t even mentioned in a book on music? In a book on the biological/neurological origins of music? Not even an aside?

So I’m reading Irene Pepperberg’s memoir of her life with Alex the parrot, with whom she worked during her studies of parrot language acquisition (or communicative behaviors), and I come across this casual mention of Alex’s reaction to music:

They are traveling cross country in a car. “We had left behind the endless miles of cornfields and succession of summer tornadoes … Alex had been terrified by the tornadoes. He could sense the change in air pressure long before we [humans] were aware of anything: the only thing that soothed him as the storms raged was Haydn’s cello concerto, which sometimes swept him into a trancelike state, his body moving gently, eyes squinting almost shut.”

Does this behavior fit the definition of moving to music, of synching one’s behaviors to a tune or a beat? Who knows? But I suppose it’s possible to find out. If you care. If it matters.

under discussion: Alex and Me: how a scientist and a parrot discovered a hidden world of animal intelligence – and formed a deep bond in the process by Irene M. Pepperberg

Monday, March 23, 2009

[X] = us

“For both scientists and laypersons, [X] has long been held sacrosanct as being uniquely human, a defining characteristic of what separates ‘us’ (humans) from ‘them’ (all other creatures). Too, a long-running debate exists about the more arcane issue of defining [X].”

In this case [X] = Language. For Oliver Sacks (see my post of Feb 28) it is music, or rather, moving to music’s rhythms. The habit among science writers of holding out for something “uniquely human” is deeply ingrained and shows little sign of being abandoned. Used to be, this habit was broader, however. Used to be a matter of course that the whatever-it-is being addressed was the very thing that separated us superior folks from those not-quite humans, the savages, the colored, the not-Christians, the women. That habit seems to have been moved safely to those whom everybody agrees are not human, that is, the animals.

One of science’s taboos is anthropomorphism. As a corrective to assuming that any given animal will have easily understood motives, that we can guess correctly what the cat or the bat or the rat will do because that’s what a human would do (nevermind our poor track record of human mind-reading), setting anthropomorphism aside isn’t a bad idea. A cat does what it does for cat reasons, a rat for rat reasons, etc. But, as with many a human behavior, the other extreme is just as bad.

The prevailing orthodoxy when Irene Pepperberg began her language studies with Alex the parrot (mid-70s) was still pretty much B.F. Skinner’s behaviorism, which, to put it crudely, saw animals as machines without thought or consciousness. Animals were seen as reacting to stimulus, not making decisions. Don’t even bother talking about consciousness. Consciousness can’t be proved.

I think we tend to get all wrapped up in consciousness and confuse ourselves into thinking consciousness is one of those defining characteristics of being human, and way more important than it really is. Don’t get me started on the history of the arcane debate over defining consciousness, even among humans.

When she was trying to present the first results of her studies, Pepperberg ran up against the backlash against language studies among nonhumans. Mostly it was the chimps that set people off. They’re not really talking! Anthopomorphism! shrieked the critics. How dare anybody go imputing to animals uniquely human traits! The major science magazines would return her work, Pepperberg suspected, unread.

under discussion: Alex and Me: how a scientist and a parrot discovered a hidden world of animal intelligence – and formed a deep bond in the process by Irene M. Pepperberg

Monday, March 09, 2009

leader v. martyr

“’The person who takes one step ahead of others is a leader. The person who takes three steps ahead of others is a martyr.’”

-- attributed to “a Chinese CEO” in Jianying Zha’s account of her brother Zha Jianguo’s imprisonment for political activism.

Those Chinese! What clever aphorists!

source: The New Yorker, April 23, 2007

Sunday, March 08, 2009

pet peeve

from the diary: “Wed 12/21/88

“It sez on the calendar: ‘Winter Begins.’ Maybe that’s why I’m depressed. I went to a movie at The Palace. I still had three movies left on the card David [my brother] bought me last year. Saw Punchline with Sally Field and Tom Hanks. They did okay and there were a few funny bits. But it was a very manipulative, predictable Hollywood package. Anything new? Even the stand-up routines were often cut so the audience in the movie is roaring with laughter and the audience in the cinema is sitting there, puzzled, hoping to be let in on the joke. I hate it when hey have a show in a movie – and the audience in the movie is having more fun than me.”

Saturday, March 07, 2009

RRWG potluck & Christmas reading

from the diary: “Monday 12/19/88

“Mom & I went to the RRWG [Russian River Writers Guild] potluck and open reading. I read a few of the poems I’d written in London. Not at all Christmasy as the theme was s’posed t’be. Laurie Posner was there and read a little bit. She’s taking a creative writing class from Marianne Ware. This was her first poetry reading – her first time reading in front of a group, at least. Nice t’see her. … Mom brought cornbread. Saw Marianne & Ann Erickson & Joe Pahls & Mark (sporting a rather silly-looking beard) & Don McQueen & Jayne [McPherson] (who told me Sonoma Mandala chose one of my poems this year. Am I supposed t’be grateful? Hmph. ‘Sabout time.) & others new and old … Some good work.”

Friday, March 06, 2009

Grendel by Matt Wagner

from the diary: “Saturday 12/17/88

“I’m bushed. Think I got a little jetlag. I lay around reading comics t’day. Gonnna stop buying Grendel. The latest issue has the homosexual villain – a corrupt old pope who likes boys. I’m thinking about popping it in an envelope and sending it back to Matt Wagner with a note saying how offensive I found it.”

I remember having a similar reaction to David Lynch’s movie version of Dune, in which the arch-villain, a floating, obese creature with a pustule-covered face, also has a predilection for boys.

Nothing says evil like a little boy-lovin’! (And by ‘boy’, I don’t mean ‘child.’)

Thursday, March 05, 2009

the closest I’ve ever gotten to New York City

On the flight home from London, the one on which I read Crocodilia, we changed planes in New York. I wasn’t able to visit the city – we didn’t have enough time to do anything but wait for our connection. But I did buy a postcard, which I described in the diary. I ran across it a couple days ago. So I scanned it.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

“Two problems with reading journals”

from the diary, Wednesday, 12/14/88, more thoughts on keeping a journal: “It sez in a book about the Adamses – you know, those silly revolutionaries – that John Adams was the only one [of the founding fathers] who kept a really good diary. Ben Franklin wrote years later from memory & George Washington recorded the state of the crops, generally giving short shrift to what we would consider the big events of the day. I wouldn’t mind a little crop talk, after all it was important at the time; but make those grains sound exciting.

“Two problems with reading journals. One, they are so full of chaff and before published should be edited quite ruthlessly. If some scholar wants all the dope, publish a ‘scholarly’ edition. Save me from it. Two, the prose is not very polished. It can be vibrant & interesting & fun, even. But when we write for ourselves we don’t impose much discipline on style or take as much care as we would for publication. I’m not going to do another draft of this. An autobiography, memoirs, those are never verbatim [diaries]. We fill in details from sketchy notes, leave unmentioned problems that take up pages [in the original diary, but which] later turn out to be unimportant. The same is true of published letters.”

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

a great quote, quite gruesome

from the diary, Wednesday, 12/14/88: “I been reading The Independent, my favorite London newspaper, not that I read many – they handed it out free on the plane – found a great quote, quite gruesome. Lessee, is about the Brit Rail crash of a day or three ago in which two trains go boom. Here goes: ‘Yesterday the official death toll fell from 36 to 33 as scientists matched severed limbs to torsos.’”

Monday, March 02, 2009

Crocodilia by Philip Ridley

from the diary, Sunday, 12/11/88: “I stopped at Gay’s the Word, bought a book, Crocodilia, to read on the plane.”

Wednesday, 12/14(ish), written while in flight from London to San Francisco, having changed planes in New York: “San Francisco isn’t too far off now. An hour and a half, I think. Maybe I’ll nap. I’ve been reading Crocodilia by Philip Ridley. It’s quite good. The main characters are living in Bethnal Green.” The man with whom I spent a night not long before the end of the London trip lived on Bethnal Green Road. Reflecting on that experience I said, “My real life sex scenes more resemble, well, a little of Lisa Alther’s humor, a little of Quentin Crisp’s indifference … whatever else. [ellipsis in orig] I’m more likely to describe sex as a giggle than a transcendant ecstasy. I’m too cerebral or something. Yet still, almost a week from Thursday night I feel more complete since I spent the night cuddled with him. I’m not a great lover I have the feeling. But given the opportunity & the encouragement I can love well. Sex not really being ‘love.’ I don’t know tho’, as I’ve carried an afterglow a long time. Sometimes we don’t know what we’re doing.”

I still have Crocodilia by Philip Ridley. The back cover calls it “Ridley’s sparkling debut as a novelist.” Indeed, Ridley seems to have gone on to a career as a novelist, with at least twelve to his name. He has also written stage plays and books for children. Seems he wrote the screenplay for the movie, The Krays. I saw that. The Krays were real life identical twin brothers who led a colorful criminal life in London. One was straight, one gay. Yes, the gay one’s gayness is a marker of his being the eviler of the two, but not by much. The bit that irked me most was the reveal, the scene where we see that the warm body one brother has just been shagging was male. Oh! We’re supposed to be shocked. Otherwise the brothers treat their male & female sextoys about the same – disposably. The straight brother isn’t really the good brother. There isn’t a good brother.