Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

Shaw & Sucia Islands

August 21, 2011 Leave a comment

Sunset from Shaw Island

Back in April, at the annual fundraising auction of the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture, we were high bidder for an overnight outing to two of the San Juan Islands. The premise of most of the auction items is that you get to spend time with one of the museum’s curators, either in the museum itself or out in the field. In this case, we were bidding for two curators and a generous host couple.

The San Juans, as you may know, lie to the north of Puget Sound and east of the Juan de Fuca Straits, in the waters between Vancouver Island (to the west) and the northern part of Washington State. The US-Canada border snakes through in a complicated pattern, separating the San Juans from Canada’s Gulf Islands to the north. (See the Pig War of 1859 and the ultimate determination of the border in 1872.) Four of the islands are served by Washington State Ferries: Lopez, Shaw, Orcas, and San Juan. But there are many others, such as Sucia, some privately owned and some public.

In outline, we were to arrive at Shaw Island in time for dinner at the host couple’s home along with the hosts and the curators, spend the evening there, then head out as a group on the hosts’ boat to Sucia Island, which lies on the other side of Orcas Island, about an hour away (depending on tides). There, we would explore the archaeology, geology, and paleontology of the island, with a break for lunch, and in mid afternoon we would return to Shaw to catch the ferry back.

Finding a mutually satisfactory time was not entirely straightforward, but we eventually settled on two weeks ago today and tomorrow. Gail and I headed off around 1:30 PM for Anacortes, on Fidalgo Island some 80 miles north of here, and its ferry terminal a few miles west of town. There we met up with Julie and Liz, our guides. Julie was once the museum’s archaeology curator, but has served for six years now as its executive director. Liz is the invertebrate paleontology curator. And both are friends, which was part of the appeal of the trip when we bid on it. (Julie is more than a friend. She’s my long lost twin, having been born on the very same day as me, just hours later. We have shared the fate of having only a limited number of birthdays. Next year is a big one.) The ferries were running late, so we had some time to kill at the ferry landing. The day was warm and lovely, and we were quite content to sit outside waiting and chatting. Once aboard the ferry, we did the same, as we snaked through the islands to Shaw.

I had never been on Shaw before, only looking at it from the ferry. It’s primarily residential. No town. No commercial area, except for the general store and post office just a hundred yards up from the ferry landing. For years, these were managed by nuns, but they left seven years ago, leaving the store in the hands of a Shaw couple. Our host met us, loaded our bags, and whisked us off to his home, where his wife welcomed us. We were shown to our guest quarters, took a few moments to unpack, then headed over to the main house to join everyone.

Soon, as we relaxed over drinks and hors d’ouevres in the most gorgeous of settings, the tour began. A large map of the islands was unfolded and Julie and Liz explained the islands’ geological history, along with that of western Washington as a whole. Birds flitted in and out among the nearby feeders and we looked out at the view across the water to other islands. Our host got the salmon going on the grill, and before long it was time to move inside for dinner.

What a feast! With two weeks gone now, I can hardly remember all the details. Many of the vegetables had been bought the day before at the market in Friday Harbor, the main town of San Juan Island and a short trip by boat. Fresh corn salad, green salad, assorted other vegetables, perfectly cooked salmon. And the conversation was every bit as wonderful as the food.

After dinner, our host took us on a walk up a slight slope on the property to its high point, a wooded area with mysterious boulders that Julie said were not naturally occurring. They would have been placed there by natives, perhaps as a burial area. From there we walked down to an overlook above the water and back to the house. The sun was near to setting, so I headed out with my camera and took shot upon shot, one of which you can see at the top.

Soon dessert awaited us, the most gorgeous of almond tarts. I had been trying to limit my carb intake, but I couldn’t pass up the tart entirely, and our hostess was kind enough to cut off a piece of just the right size for me. It was so good that if allowed, I would surely have had three regular pieces rather than one tiny piece. We talked into the evening, partly about issues of higher education, then headed off to get some sleep before our big adventure.

The next morning, we arrived at the main house from our guest quarters to find yet another feast, a breakfast of eggs and bacon and fruits and berries and bread and more. After eating and loading up, we headed to our hosts’ boat, moored not far away, and within minutes we were off.

Leaving Shaw Island for Sucia Island

The tides were against us as we headed north around the west side of Orcas and then east, along the north side of Orcas to Sucia. We arrived in Fossil Bay, an inlet on the island’s southeast corner, found some dock space to tie up along, and disembarked. The morning was for archaeology.

Julie isn’t just any archaeologist. She’s Ms. San Juan Islands Archaeologist, the famed islands expert, having led digs, studied, and published about them for decades. And Sucia isn’t just any island. It’s the island on which the young archaeologist Robert Kidd did some groundbreaking (I know, this is must be a tiresome pun among archies) research starting in 1960. We walked over to the site of Kidd’s work, where Julie gave us a lesson on the history of archaeological research in the islands. She had brought along photos of the old dig, much of which is now covered over by wild roses and other growth, as well as the thistle pictured below.

Sucia Island thistle

We then walked along the beach in search of evidence of shell middens (the garbage dumps where native residents would have thrown their shells and other waste, and where tools are typically found as well). We didn’t have to look far. We reached one of the raised composting toilets, and there just below was a midden, disturbed of course by the construction years ago of the original toilet. Two parks employees came by and Julie gave us all a lesson on middens.

Time for lunch. We retraced our steps back to the boat, our hosts set pulled out all the food, unfolded a tablecloth on one of the picnic tables that sit on the dock, and laid out feast number three. There were some leftovers, new salads, smoked salmon, homemade chocolate chip cookies, fruit, drinks. Gosh we ate well.

Time for paleontology. We walked back past the shell middens to another stretch of beach, which you can see below. We walked down the beach not in the direction shown, but in the direction behind me.

Sucia Island beach, with Waldron (US) and Saturna (Canada) Islands beyond

This brought us to some cliffs filled with fossils. Let me assure you, in case you have any interest in heading over to Sucia, that fossil collecting is absolutely forbidden. So don’t do it. Unless you have a permit, which you don’t, but which Liz does. Out came two hammers, though Julie showed me that I could pick up any quartz rock along the beach and use it as well.

Sucia Island fossil

We all hammered away at the cliff, or at pieces of fallen rock at the cliff’s foot, turning up fossil after fossil, which Liz duly recorded and bagged. It was great fun. I forgot to mention that Liz had brought some fossils up from the museum collection, showing us back at the house after breakfast what they were and previewing what we might see. As we found new fossils, she was able to tell us what they were.

Well, one can only have so much fun, and there was a ferry to catch, so around 3:00 we started walking back to the boat. Those darn tides. They had gone and reversed themselves on us, setting us up for yet another tide-fighting ride. But a beautiful one, with great company, so we were happy as we bumped along, around Orcas again and on to Shaw.

After docking, we unloaded, carried and wheelbarrowed everything back to the vehicles, and it was time for goodbyes to Julie, Liz, and the hostess, who would be returning to the house. The host drove us on to the ferry landing with time to spare, so we were able to wander through the general store with him and check out the post office. Then one more farewell, leaving Gail and me to sit and look out across the water to Orcas as we waited for the ferry.

The return trip was longer, since the ferry makes a triangle, going on from Shaw to Orcas before returning to Anacortes. We were back at our car around 7:00, in need of dinner. I had seen two possibilities the day before on our way through downtown Anacortes to the ferry, a Chinese place and a Mexican taqueria across the street from it. We drove into town, checked both out, and chose Chinese. A bit of a comedown from the three amazing meals of the previous 24 hours, but perfectly fine. Just what we needed. We got back in the car and an hour and a half later we were home.

We can’t wait for next year’s auction, and perhaps another curator trip, though nothing can top this one.

Categories: Food, Science, Travel

Arsenic-Based Life

December 2, 2010 Leave a comment

I can’t remember the last time I had a science post, but there was a pretty cool announcement today in the realm of astrobiology, and I can’t resist mentioning it.

One might describe astrobiology as the inter-disciplinary study of how life begins, or could begin, on Earth or elsewhere in the universe. One challenge to studying this is that we haven’t found life anywhere else in the universe. That makes it a little difficult to study life elsewhere. But what we can do instead is study life in harsh conditions on Earth, such as at deep sea hydrothermal vents. Faculty at my university study such things. I even know some of these faculty. And a few years back, my administrative duties included overseeing our Astrobiology Program, not that that made me especially knowledgeable about the field. But I did come to develop some appreciation for it. I always remember the remark of a visiting astrobiologist that this field is really going to explode when life is found elsewhere in the universe.

Meantime, we have to settle for life here. That’s the context for the news announced today. The NYT’s Dennis Overbye explains in his story in tomorrow’s paper:

Scientists said Thursday that they had trained a bacterium to eat and grow on a diet of arsenic, in place of phosphorus — one of six elements considered essential for life — opening up the possibility that organisms could exist elsewhere in the universe or even here on Earth using biochemical powers we have not yet dared to dream about.*

The bacterium, scraped from the bottom of Mono Lake in California and grown for months in a lab mixture containing arsenic, gradually swapped out atoms of phosphorus in its little body for atoms of arsenic.

Scientists said the results, if confirmed, would expand the notion of what life could be and where it could be. “There is basic mystery, when you look at life,” said Dimitar Sasselov, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and director of an institute on the origins of life there, who was not involved in the work. “Nature only uses a restrictive set of molecules and chemical reactions out of many thousands available. This is our first glimmer that maybe there are other options.”

Felisa Wolfe-Simon, a NASA astrobiology fellow at the United States Geological Survey in Menlo Park, Calif., who led the experiment, said, “This is a microbe that has solved the problem of how to live in a different way.”

This story is not about Mono Lake or arsenic, she said, but about “cracking open the door and finding that what we think are fixed constants of life are not.”

Dr. Wolfe-Simon and her colleagues publish their findings Friday in Science.

I find this pretty exciting.

*Responding to the notion of powers we have not yet dared to dream about, the New Yorker’s Amy Davidson asked, “Is this where we have to choose between X-ray vision and flying?”

Categories: Life, Science

DeRose: Oenology+Seismology

November 29, 2009 2 comments

The Wall Street Journal’s front-page daily feature yesterday was about DeRose Vineyards, notable for both its wine and its location on the San Andreas fault. If you have access, I recommend the article as well as the accompanying slide show and video. As explained in the article,

DeRose Vineyards has become a must-see for geologists, seismologists and science buffs. They come for the San Andreas Fault, which cuts a clear path through the winery’s main building. One side of the structure sits on the Pacific plate, the other on the North American. The fault is moving slowly, and tearing apart the building at the rate of about half an inch a year.

A jagged crack splits the office floor and runs through the warehouse between the fermentation tanks and the aging barrels. An outer wall is warped. A doorway is barely usable. A long concrete ditch is distorted. …

But what scientists consider a geological marvel is an expensive nuisance to the winery’s owners.

“We just keep patching,” says Pat DeRose, who bought the winery in 1988 with another family. In the past 40 years, one side of the building has moved around a foot and a half northwest, while the other side has stayed put. That has required regular fixes to the roof and walls.

The video is narrated by Tamara Audi, the author of the article. She notes at the end that “if you work on the San Andreas, it helps to have a sense of humor and plenty of wine.” One of the staff then notes, “Eventually LA will be here. We’ll have beach front property.”

As for the vineyard itself, the history page at its website suggests that it may be the oldest winery in California. Forty of its 100 acres were planted before 1900 and are “dry-farmed in deep sandy-loam soils on terraced hillsides.”

I’d sure like to visit. Maybe we will, when we take our long-deferred first trip to Monterey. Meanwhile, I’m going to order a couple of their wines. Don’t tell Gail. It will be a surprise.

Categories: Newspapers, Science, Wine


October 5, 2009 Leave a comment


[Alan S. Weiner for The New York Times]

I just realized that I haven’t written a post yet this month. Sorry about that. I’ve spent most of my free computer time the last few days on trip planning. With me on sabbatical, and with Joel in Grenoble until just before Christmas, it’s obvious that we should get over there, and so we will. The pieces are now mostly in place — and just in time — for what will be our longest trip in a decade. We have flights and hotel reservations. Next up is train reservations. Three weeks from this moment we’ll be over the Atlantic, making our way to Paris to see my sister after a short stop in New York. Then on to Grenoble, Venice, Rome, Florence, Milan, back to Paris, back to New York, and finally Chicago overnight for a meeting before returning here.

I have a few items I had thought of writing about that I will instead just list here, with minimal comment. Then I’ll get on to other issues in separate posts.

1. In case you missed the coverage of the October 1 ceremony for the 2009 Ig Nobel Prize winners, be sure to review the list here. Some are pretty good. Not so the Math prize, alas, as the choice and accompanying citation only serve to reinforce the stereotype that mathematicians spend their time dealing with really big numbers. But maybe people in other fields feel similarly. Here, as one example, is the Physics prize citation:

PHYSICS PRIZE: Katherine K. Whitcome of the University of Cincinnati, USA, Daniel E. Lieberman of Harvard University, USA, and Liza J. Shapiro of the University of Texas, USA, for analytically determining why pregnant women don’t tip over.

REFERENCE: “Fetal Load and the Evolution of Lumbar Lordosis in Bipedal Hominins,” Katherine K. Whitcome, Liza J. Shapiro & Daniel E. Lieberman, Nature, vol. 450, 1075-1078 (December 13, 2007). DOI:10.1038/nature06342.

WHO ATTENDED THE CEREMONY: Katherine Whitcome and Daniel Lieberman

2. The lead story in yesterday’s NYT travel section had some local interest. It was an amusing account by NYT Styles reporter Eric Wilson of his failed effort to hike the Wonderland Trail around Mount Rainier this past summer. He had the misfortune of starting his journey on the day we all remember well, when the temperature was 103 degrees here in Seattle and apparently no different down there. Here’s one brief excerpt from his experience that day:

When we came upon an eerily blue lake, bluer than the Mediterranean, clear-looking enough to be a mirage or a mirror, I could not resist a quick dip, and so I ran headlong into the water as Chris and Rosemary were still taking off their shoes. As I broke through the still surface of water, the sensation I felt was that I would not be coming back up. My legs and arms felt disconnected from my body, collectively numb, but I could sense every hair on my head stand up in unison, and then, in the same millisecond, a piercing stab through my chest. I jerked my head up and gasped. It had not occurred to me that a lake halfway up the highest summit in the Cascade Range (14,410 feet) and one of the highest points in the lower 48 states, and not a mile from the edge of a glacier (ironically named Fryingpan) might be, well, as cold as ice. My feet touched bottom, and I sloshed out of the water, frightened by the intensity of the pain, but surely invigorated.

3. A week ago I had anticipated writing a post about Afghanistan, but it never happened. As a substitute for my own uneducated thoughts on the subject, I’ll just point to two of the several articles I read a week ago: George Packer’s article on Richard Holbrooke in the September 28 issue of the New Yorker and Ahmed Rashid’s article in the October 8 issue of the New York Review of Books on the situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan. I should add to this yesterday’s Washington Post op-ed piece by Peter Galbraith, written in the wake of his firing as deputy special representative of the United Nations in Afghanistan. (It turns out that I know Peter, sort of. He was a college classmate. We were in the same residential house. Just two Junes ago, during our 35th reunion, we sat together at lunch one day and chatted.) Galbraith writes about the recent Afghan election, for which he supervised the UN support:

Afghanistan’s presidential election, held Aug. 20, should have been a milestone in the country’s transition from 30 years of war to stability and democracy. Instead, it was just the opposite. As many as 30 percent of Karzai’s votes were fraudulent, and lesser fraud was committed on behalf of other candidates. In several provinces, including Kandahar, four to 10 times as many votes were recorded as voters actually cast. The fraud has handed the Taliban its greatest strategic victory in eight years of fighting the United States and its Afghan partners.

The election was a foreseeable train wreck. Unlike the United Nations-run elections in 2004, this balloting was managed by Afghanistan’s Independent Election Commission (IEC). Despite its name, the commission is subservient to Karzai, who appointed its seven members. Even so, the international role was extensive. The United States and other Western nations paid the more than $300 million to hold the vote, and U.N. technical staff took the lead in organizing much of the process, including printing ballot papers, distributing election materials and designing safeguards against fraud.

President Obama needs a legitimate Afghan partner to make any new strategy for the country work. However, the extensive fraud that took place on Aug. 20 virtually guarantees that a government emerging from the tainted vote will not be credible with many Afghans.

I can’t imagine any US mission in Afghanistan having much chance of success. But again, what do I know? On the other hand, Rory Stewart knows a lot, and he doesn’t seem to see things much differently. (See a post of mine from two months ago.)

4. I try to keep my references to Glenn Greenwald’s blog within reasonable bounds, but here I go again. In a post yesterday, he has a passage that aptly describes the state of the nation:

Reviewing the Sunday news shows and newspapers creates the most intense cognitive dissonance: a nation crippled by staggering debt, exploding unemployment, an ever-expanding rich-poor gap, and dependence on foreign government financing can’t stop debating how much more resources we should devote to our various military occupations, which countries we should bomb next, which parts of the world we should bring into compliance with our dictates using threats of military force. It’s like listening to an individual about to declare personal bankruptcy talking about all the new houses and jewels he plans on buying next week and all the extravagant trips he’s planning, in between lamenting how important it is that he stop spending so much. That would sound insane. And that’s exactly how our political discourse sounds.

Where is the change we can believe in?

The Rural Life

September 16, 2009 Leave a comment


Norman Borlaug, the great plant scientist, father of the Green Revolution, and recipient of the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize, died on Saturday at the age of 95. I have little to add to what has been written about him in many places, such as this NYT obituary. When I read the obituary yesterday, though, I was taken by the one short passage about his childhood, as it made me think of the life my father-in-law must have led at much the same time among Norwegian immigrants in rural northeastern South Dakota.

Norman Ernest Borlaug was born on March 25, 1914, in his grandfather’s farmhouse near the tiny settlement of Saude, in northeastern Iowa. Growing up in a stalwart community of Norwegian immigrants, he trudged across snow-covered fields to a one-room country school, coming home almost every day to the aroma of bread baking in his mother’s oven.

He was a high-spirited boy of boundless curiosity. His sister, Charlotte Culbert, recounted in an interview in 2008 in Cresco, Iowa, that he would whistle aloud as he milked the cows, and pester his parents and grandparents with questions. “He’d wonder why in some areas the grass would be so green, and then over here it wouldn’t be,” Mrs. Culbert recalled.

Gail’s great-grandparents came to South Dakota from Norway, and her grandparents and father grew up there. Much of the family, including Gail’s father Stewart, would ultimately leave South Dakota for the Seattle area, but one of Gail’s uncles stayed behind. The uncle’s three daughters and grandchildren still live there. Gail visited regularly when she grew up. Her last visit — and my only one — was in June 1999. We went with Stewart and Joel so Stewart could attend his 60th high school reunion in Groton. Gail, Joel, and I stayed in the tiny (really tiny) community of Claremont with her aunt, while Stewart stayed farther north in Britton with one of Gail’s cousins. We almost made it to his parents’ family farm between Claremont and Langford, but the road was under water. Indeed, much of the area was under water, a phenomenon you can see if you fly east from Seattle to New York and look out the left window. The standard route takes you over Aberdeen, the main city in northeastern SD, with Groton another 20 miles to the east and Claremont 20 miles north of Groton. Look to your left and you’ll see lots and lots of lakes that weren’t there 70 years ago. Somewhere amidst the lakes is the farm.

Stewart’s life was nothing like Norman Borlaug’s, but like Borlaug, Stewart never left the farm behind. I don’t think he ever felt as at home as when he was around one. He would have enjoyed our little garden if he were still alive. Gail picked our first tomatoes of the season — at long last — just yesterday. She’ll be using them in tonight’s dinner. I hope.

Categories: Biography, Family, Science

Why Educate?

August 27, 2009 Leave a comment


When the September issue of Harper’s arrived at the house the week before last, I immediately read Mark Slouka’s article Dehumanized: When Math and Science Rule the School. I was going to write about it at the time, but the website still had the August up. September is online now (though you may need an account to read the full article). If you can get access to the article, I recommend it. Slouka makes a good case for the dangers of de-emphasizing the arts and humanities in favor of math, science, and preparation to participate in the market economy. I think he mis-represents the nature of mathematics at times. Whether he does so out of ignorance or in service to his argument I have no way to tell. But any errors in this direction shouldn’t distract from his larger warning about an imbalance in US education, with which I largely agree.

It is difficult, indeed unwise, for a university administrator to resist the temptation to build strength in disciplines that have the potential to bring in external research funding (at a major research university anyway). But at least when one makes such decisions, one should be aware of the issues Slouka raises. After the jump, I’ll quote some passages from the article to give an idea of his argument.

I am reminded of my son Joel’s initial first grade homework assignments years ago. On the first evening, he was to establish a location in the house where he would put his completed homework, so that he would be able to remember on a consistent basis to bring it to school each day. There was a similar assignment the next night, maybe involving setting up a regular work location. I had the sinking feeling that the underlying goal was to train him for the workforce rather than educate him. A year later, at our parent-teacher conference to review his work, I was struck even more forcefully by the realization that that teacher’s concern was his success at developing proper work habits, as opposed to his giving free rein to his curiosity.

This is an old tension in education, workforce development and socialization versus creativity and imagination. Many have written far more eloquently about it than I can, Slouka in particular. So I won’t say more. Except to note that science and math are not on one side of this. They are very much a haven for creativity and imagination. The problem that arises is how to respond when business and legislative leaders argue that math and science, as the areas most likely to lead to new business opportunities and most in demand by highly desirable businesses, should be given extra funding so that a university can train more students to prepare for careers in these fields. This is a good problem. Yet, it can open the door to mis-understanding about what a research university’s mission is, what the larger benefits of math and science education to all citizens can be, and how important arts and humanities are as well for an educated citizen.

Let me leave it at that. Here are representative excerpts from Slouka’s article:
Read more…

Categories: Culture, Education, Math, Science

Quote of the Day

February 24, 2009 Leave a comment


We all know that teachers don’t get no respect, in certain quarters anyway. Those who dis them make silly statements about their short workdays, their free summers, and so on. (I’m talking about K-12 teachers, not us university teachers.) It was refreshing to hear a stunning statement of praise for them today.

Our Dean of Education arranged a meeting for this afternoon at which some science education experts in her College and one science education non-expert (me) could talk to Lee Hartwell about some of the efforts going on at the university. Lee has been a member of the UW faculty since 1968, joined the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center (“The Hutch”) in 1996, and has been its president and director since 1997. He is also a recipient of the 2001 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine. He has become interested in science education and how we are preparing science teachers. Hence the meeting, at which we had a fabulous discussion for over an hour and a half. Early in the conversation, Lee provided the promised quote:

It’s more demanding to be a classroom teacher than to be a scientist.

How about that? No one disagreed.

Categories: Education, Science

Memory Surprise

January 25, 2009 Leave a comment


I’m hardly breaking new ground in saying that the way memory works is a continuing surprise. And I’m no Oliver Sacks (alas), so I’m not about to write an engrossing essay with startling anecdotes. This is a simple tale, about the memory I know best.

Late yesterday afternoon, Gail and I were driving (well, you know, we were in the car together. I was driving) out of the neighborhood for an early dinner down the hill at The Attic, our local tavern. As we were heading out, I was thinking of a restaurant a few miles south where we might have gone instead if we hadn’t already made up our minds. It’s a restaurant we ate at regularly years ago, then stopped going to, until we stumbled on it again two Marches ago on the way to the airport to pick up Joel. And then we didn’t return again until a month ago, when we had a superb dinner. The place is down towards the Mt. Baker neighborhood. It sits atop the I-90 tunnel, practically on a cliff, with dramatic views to the west of downtown, Elliott Bay, Puget Sound, and the Olympics. When we stopped in last month, no one else was there. (It was only 5:00 PM. We were on our way north from a holiday open house and decided we may as well have dinner before heading home for the evening.) As a result, we were given one of the three tables at the window, allowing us to take full advantage of the view.

Anyway, in the car yesterday, I wanted to mention to Gail that we could have gone to this restaurant, but I couldn’t remember its name. I knew the name had two words. Or was it three words, with “The” being the first word? Could be. But two content words. I always have trouble remembering its name. But I figured Gail would remember. So I asked if she did remember. I didn’t want her to give the name away. I just wanted to know if she remembered the name of the restaurant across the street from where her Great Uncle Harry used to live. Harry moved to Seattle in the late 1930s, became a policeman, had a house that still sits across and about 30 yards south of the restaurant. And when other relatives, one by one, moved from South Dakota to Seattle, they would spend some time in Uncle Harry’s home before finding their own accommodations. We took Gail’s father to the restaurant when we first started eating there and he pointed the house out to us as his own first Seattle home.

Here’s the thing. Gail said sure, she knows the name of the restaurant. Well, it didn’t help that I first described it as the restaurant across the street from Uncle Butchy’s house. Wrong uncle. But once we cleared that up, she knew the name. As a hint, she suggested I think of a song. Without hesitation — without hesitating for a moment — I said the first song name that came to mind. My Cherie Amour. The Stevie Wonder hit of 1969. I knew fully well that this was not the restaurant’s name. But it’s the song I thought of, so I said it. And here’s the surprise. Gail laughed, saying no, it’s not My Cherie Amour, it’s That’s Amore. (The famous Dean Martin song, a 1952 hit, though if I have to say Dean Martin, you probably don’t know the song. Maybe if I tell you the opening lyrics: “When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie, that’s amore.”)

I had no idea what the restaurant’s name was. It wasn’t on the tip of my tongue. It wasn’t in the back of my throat. It was nowhere. Or so I thought. But something was going on in my brain, because when Gail told me to think of a song, out of the blue I came up with one whose key word is also the key word in the restaurant’s name. Wrong language, but still. Amour. Amore. My brain was getting there, unbeknownst to me. I have new respect for it.

Categories: Restaurants, Science

Parrot Speech Without Lips

October 30, 2008 Leave a comment

I love stories about our communication with animals as much as the next person. They’re irresistible. And maybe some of them are true. But my illusions about our success in communicating with our resident animal (our chosen resident animal anyway) are limited in scope. She has a few tools that she uses regularly, but she uses them indiscriminately to indicate different desires, such as her desire to go out, her desire for more water, her desire to come in, her desire to be rubbed, and her desire to get me to look at her rather than the computer monitor. (She’s not above sitting in front if it and blocking my view if all else fails.) Then again, maybe I’m just dense and her nuance is lost on me. I do know that if I fulfill her high-priority needs — opening the doors, replenishing her food and water bowls, and petting her — there’s a positive probability that she’ll calm down.

In any case, Geoffrey Pullum’s post on the Language Log yesterday was a useful antidote to the too-easy belief that the animals are really talking to us. You gotta love his opening:

No matter how hard I try to locate the world’s most stupid animal communication story, they keep outflanking me. I am always left behind. An even stupider one always comes along. All I can say as of this morning is that I never thought I would see a story as stupid as this in a respected news source, and right now I cannot imagine how it could be surpassed (though within a few weeks I suppose it probably will be).

This is with reference to the review in the current Economist of Irene Pepperberg’s book Alex & Me“:How a Scientist and a Parrot Discovered a Hidden World of Animal Intelligence–and Formed a Deep Bond in the Process. Pullum focuses on the idiocy of the review rather than the possible idiocy of the book itself. Here’s the part of the review that sends Pullum over the top:

Lacking lips, he could not pronounce the letter “p”, so his term for an apple was “banerry” (apparently mixing “banana” and “cherry”).

I quote part of Pullum’s analysis of this statement after the jump, including a fabulous sentence at the end. His note is a valuable reminder to read about animal communication with skepticism. Read more…

Categories: Language, Science

Palin on Fruit Flies

October 27, 2008 Leave a comment

I have written about the anti-intellectual, anti-science appeals in McCain’s campaign in the context of his derisive comments on earmarks for research on bear DNA and the request for federal support of a new “overhead projector” for the Adler Planetarium. In both posts, I indicate or provide links to explanations of what’s really going on. Today, Slate posted an article by Christopher Hitchens about Sarah Palin’s War on Science. He describes her mocking last Friday of federal spending on fruit-fly research, notwithstanding the decades-long importance of fruit flies in genetic research because of their role as a “model organism.”

I suppose that if one doesn’t believe in evolution, it is natural to question genetic research or the value of model organisms. But presumably Palin is using fruit flies, like McCain’s bear DNA, as a self-evident object of derision, independent of the actual science being done.

In any case, see Hitchens’ article, which concludes as follows:

This is what the Republican Party has done to us this year: It has placed within reach of the Oval Office a woman who is a religious fanatic and a proud, boastful ignoramus. Those who despise science and learning are not anti-elitist. They are morally and intellectually slothful people who are secretly envious of the educated and the cultured. And those who prate of spiritual warfare and demons are not just “people of faith” but theocratic bullies. On Nov. 4, anyone who cares for the Constitution has a clear duty to repudiate this wickedness and stupidity.

Categories: Politics, Science, Today's News