Do Animals Have Language?

To us modern folks it seems perfectly natural that we, the highly evolved primates that we are, would eventually develop a sophisticated means of communication (beyond throwing feces). Linguists, scholars, and language experts will tell you that humans have a monopoly on language, and that no other creature uses it. That is not to say that other animals do not communicate. On the contrary, practically every organism on earth communicates in some form, even plants. But do crickets have a language in their dulcet chirping sounds? Are howler monkeys speaking to one another, or are they just signalling danger or mating calls? How would we ever know?

In 1971, Penny Patterson began working with a gorilla named Koko, and communication was established when Koko learned sign language. Over the years, Koko has learned over 1000 signs and appears to have about 2,000 words in her vocabulary, according to the Gorilla Foundation website. Koko can apparently tell someone when she is tired or hungry, but also that her favorite color is red, and how she felt when she lost All Ball, her first kitten. We humans have, in our arrogance, assumed that only we have true emotions or the means to express them. But it appeared that Koko was entirely capable of expressing her grief. Decades later, the project still manages to amaze the world.

During an episode of “A Way With Words” that aired in October 2016, a listener called to ask whether his parrot really understood language, or was it simply imitating it. Host Grant Barrett, after listening to the caller’s story, maintained his view that animals, at least parrots, do not use language even though they may be capable of communicating. So what is a word, as the caller put it? What is the difference between a sound and a word? Huh? Meh. Ack! These are all sounds you can make, but do they mean anything? Of course they do, within some context. For instance, “huh” in the States usually means, “can you repeat that?” “Meh” is more modern, and I believe it is used to convey ambivalence. “Ack!” is from Bloom County, and I think it means “ack!” You’d have to ask Bill the Cat.

Perhaps we are unique. It is possible that even though Koko can communicate with her human handlers, she may not truly understand the meaning of the words she uses. For now, we cannot know either way. The only means of understanding what is going on in her brain is through her language. But that’s true for any human as well. We struggle with our words. They’re on the tip of our tongue. The mind usually works a lot faster than the connection to the muscles in the face and tongue that allow us to form words. Speech and writing can only transmit a finite amount of information, even with the massive collection of text we have at our disposal. Most of what has been written by humanity has been abridged by the limitations of our ability to focus our thoughts and transmit that information to the page or elsewhere.

This brings me to music. Music has been referred to as a language. Indeed it has its own “alphabet”, musical notation. Like any language, many aspects of it have evolved over the centuries, seeing changes in style, notation, and the use of polyphony – more than one voice or instrument at a time. In the 1977 film Close Encounters of the Third Kind, writer Steven Spielberg explored the notion that extraterrestrial life might be able to communicate with other intelligent life by using tones in sequence and patterns. Music. The ships arrived at various times around the globe and delivered a “message” in the form of a unique and now familiar melody. In the film’s climax, there ensued a lively exchange of musical notes in seemingly random patterns. (Randomness is in the ear of the beholder.)

Spielberg’s concept of how two very different species might communicate was probably the first of its kind. Others would follow. If we are ever visited by aliens, I like to think we’d have a chance at not being completely annihilated. How will we understand them when we have so much trouble understanding one another? Hopefully whoever has the ability to travel from the stars to get here has also listened to our broadcasts over the decades. If they have, they will have heard everything, or almost all of our vast catalog of recordings, everything from elation to heartache. I’m guessing the music might have spoken to them far beyond the words’ ability to do so.

But Koko doesn’t sing. She signs. Sign language might bridge the gap, assuming the extraterrestrials have hands or appendages of some sort. For all we know, jellyfish are from space, and they have been trying to tell us something important all along. From where we stand, come to think of it, how could we ever hope to understand? We need to reach out, pushing against the boundary of what we think we know about the universe, blundering into the unknown in hopes of the happy accident of a breakthrough. How long did we wait before we made contact with our nearest neighbors? Is it as simple as Spielberg made it look? Is it just a matter of making the right sounds in the correct order, hoping to make some sense? Isn’t that exactly what language is?

Advertisements

Deoxyribonucleic Acid and You

The great thing about me, about you, and all of us, is that we are made up of the combined heredity of a myriad of people; but moreso, we are made up of two – our moms and dads. Every one of us is a not-so-symmetrical blend of our parents’ DNA. You can see it when you meet the child of someone you have known for years, or for that matter, meeting that friend’s parents, and you will either say that one closely resembles the other, or that they are very different. People have been telling me my whole life – bringing me much distress during my teenage years – that I look very much like my dad. I continued rebuking everyone who pointed out the similarities until I saw it for myself in the mirror one day. It was some facial expression or mannerism, or a combination of many things, but there he was, my dad, looking right back at me. It comes and goes, but deep down I’ve always known.

So it was settled: I had become my father. Naturally, I take after my mom, too. I have her sense of humor and her tastes for music, art, and politics. I share my dad’s love for sardines. Go figure. My brother also has a curious blend of our parents. He got the good hair and the lean, muscular build. I got the brains. Seems fair. It’s all a roll of the dice, unless you subscribe to the principles of eugenics, where children can be customized and engineered, a model for humanity based not on natural selection, but on individual preference. This is a frightening prospect, leaving nothing to chance, manufacturing human beings for a potentially nefarious purpose. This might inspire someone to create a “master race” of superhumans. It leaves a bad taste in my mouth just thinking about it.

Fortunately, or not, depending on your perspective, we must leave it up to fate. From my perspective, being childless, I don’t have to imagine how it could go wrong. I would like to have seen what kind of child my wife and I could have had together. I’m sure it frightens young couples to think about the possibility of seeing manifest the worst aspects of their respective families – perhaps some alcoholism or drug addiction, or mental illness, or a tendency toward violence. Some things may be difficult to avoid. It is believed that personality and inclination are developed through experience. My cousin who has identical twins might disagree. But much of who we are was not packaged with us at birth. For instance, I am much more skeptical now than when I was younger. And I appreciate flavors I used to find disgusting as a child (wasabi, for instance).

When you look through old photos, you can see resemblances. You will see it more and more as time goes on, because in the 21st century, everyone has been photographed at least once in their lifetime. My great-grandparents might not have even owned a camera. A hundred years ago, having a portrait made was a big expense, and not everyone could afford it. If you have pictures of certain family members when they were young, consider those priceless. Nowadays, everyone has a camera in their pocket, and those pictures proliferate the internet. Therefore, as we get older, more photos will be available with better quality, and future generations will be able to see likenesses with greater resolution and clarity than ever before.

We are not carbon copies of either of our parents, but instead a unique blend of them both. Actually, it does go far beyond our parents. I have my paternal grandfather’s nose, and my brother has our maternal great-grandfather’s build. That photo album will reveal more as you go further back in time. But there are more segments of our past beyond the outward appearance. You might have your grandmother’s laugh, or you might have your dad’s sense of humor.

For some reason, I have to say, I have a good ear for music. I am a singer, and I play several instruments. A few people in my dad’s side of the family are musically inclined. It’s really a small percentage. I could say it runs in my family, but there’s no hard evidence to prove it. On the other hand, I’ve met artistic couples whose children show no interest or talent in the arts. I’m grateful for my talents, and I wouldn’t trade them for anything. But I do wish I were more naturally organized. What little focus I have, I have had to work to achieve it. Being organized definitely does not come naturally to me, even if it is featured among some in my family.

There are a lot of traits we can credit one or both parents for. Most of my features I get from my dad – everything from hair follicles to body shape to culinary inventiveness. Sometimes it seems I am a carbon copy of him. That’s not so bad. He and I are not likely to agree on politics, and he is probably disappointed that I couldn’t give him grandchildren (I think he’s moved on to my brother). But I suspect he also stays up late on his computer, perhaps rambling about some idea that was keeping him awake. It wouldn’t surprise me. After all, I really am my father.

untitled

 

A-ha! “untitled” indeed. Alright, this is about as amusing as the old fake answering machine message where the person sounds like they’ve answered the phone, but about 30 seconds into it, you realize you’re talking to a machine, and you feel both embarrassed and frustrated, which presents itself in the recorded message that you end up leaving. Well, few people have answering machines anymore, so it’s not likely you would run into that particular comic gem. Likewise, the “untitled” post is probably reminiscent to the vaudevillian stage, no longer relevant and altogether unoriginal.

Originality might be overrated; it’s refreshing sometimes to hear someone’s interpretation of an old song or a reimagining of a classic movie. But after a while it does get old. I mean really old. Take, for instance, the film “Ben-Hur”, currently in theaters, which is a remake of the 1959 classic starring Charlton Heston in the titular role. Only, that was a remake of the silent 1925 film “Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ“, starring Ramon Novarro. I found it on Youtube, but I won’t link it here because it’s likely to be taken down. But, since this film is over 90 old, it could be considered in the public domain. Both the 1925 and the 1959 films were monumental achievements, especially considering the astounding number of extras, horses and other animals, not to mention the massive sets, the chariot races, as well as all the costumes and other scenery. Nowadays, many movies incorporate CGI – computer-generated imagery – to produce the effect of crowded streets or a naval battle. Back then, you had to hire hundreds of people and build ships, or at least model ships.

Stories like that of Judah Ben-Hur, or Dorothy Gale and the Wizard are bound to be retold, and retold. Sometimes people are not even aware they are watching a remake. In fact, the original “Ben-Hur” was filmed in 1907. That film is surreal in that it seems to have been filmed with a single stationary camera, and there were no closeups or cut-aways. Early days. Even with all these remakes, and all the repackaging of other iconic figures, like Beau Geste or Figaro, lack of originality is rarely mentioned. It appears to be predicated on the staying power of the original. I guess that’s why so many films have been made from Bible stories or Greek mythology. (How many times are they going to remake “Clash of the Titans”?)

I’ll admit, being original is very difficult. Even John Williams, composer of film scores for movies like “Star Wars”, “ET”, “Schindler’s List”, and “Superman”, has been criticized for being derivative. But truly innovative composers are like rare gems. That’s why people remember names like Mozart, Beethoven, and Liszt. Even Johannes Brahms “lifted” a bit of Haydn’s original work, but he did it with authenticity. His “Variations on a Theme” is actually pretty inventive and full of surprises. (Well, there I go linking to Youtube).

I guess you don’t have to be original all the time. You do have to be genuine, and people will always be able to tell when you’re trying to be someone or something you’re not. But like wearing a mask at Carnivàle, or doing cosplay at a convention, or whatever at Burning Man, you can make it your own.

Ilia attacks Shocktopus - Burning Man 2013

Photo by Kristina Reed/Flickr.com

 

The Good Old Days?

I am not an old man. That being said, the 1990’s were a long time ago – not in grand, geological terms, nor to most “boomers”, but the flow of time continues with no hint of slowing, and we who are left to suffer under its tyranny are forced to watch the suffering of those who were caught under the wheels of this temporal juggernaut. Then again, 25 years ago isn’t such a very long time now, is it?

The other day, I was listening to streaming music – unavailable in the old days – when Mariah Carey’s “Emotions” began to play. A great song – not her very best, but a good one, nonetheless. I decided to look up the song to get some details, and there it was: release date, August 13, 1991. 25 years ago. Now this song has been around a long time, but I wouldn’t have considered it an “oldie”. But back when I was in high school, we listened to “classic rock” from the 60’s – less than 20 years earlier. Cream, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin. I think it’s funny, or strange, that I perceive the late 60’s as such a long time ago, but more time has passed from the advent of the web (not the internet – that has been around a lot longer than people realize) to the present day than from Nixon’s inauguration to my high school graduation. Yes, when I graduated from high school, it had only been 16 years since Richard Nixon was sworn in as the 37th President of the US. The first website was launched more than 25 years ago.

A lot of us can remember the world before websites and mobile phones. We can remember having to use pay phones and going to the library to look things up, because even if you had a computer in your home back then, it probably wasn’t connected to other computers. That was kind of normal back then. I wonder what the world will be like 25 years from now. Will we have RFID’s implanted in our bodies? Will self-driving cars be a thing, or will that plan fizzle like Beta-Max and New Coke? Nowadays, the things I miss are strange to think about. Like going to a record store, or being unreachable by phone. There was a time when no one could text you. It just wasn’t an option. When you wanted to be out of reach, all you had to do was leave your house and go to the movies. Oh, that will probably disappear soon, too.

Now, people get upset with me if I don’t respond in a timely fashion. What’s “timely”? Well, some of my acquaintances get miffed if they have to wait more than a few minutes for me to respond to a text message. And these are people my age or older! Don’t they remember the “good old days?”

The 90’s were a long time ago. An entire generation exists with no memory of that decade. My niece is about to graduate from high school, and she was born in 1998. She only knows a world where the web was well-established, and most people had mobile devices. Her generation has never used a pay phone or had to reference an almanac. It might sound like I’m complaining, but in reality, I’m looking ahead with optimism, and a little concern. No one can predict what will come next. Could anyone have predicted reality television, or better yet, the obsolescence of that medium? It looks like the new wave of our culture will be to elect personalities rather than candidates. Fame will be instant – the term “viral” is already part of our lexicon.

Do I miss the 90’s? No. Nor do I miss any other time before. I miss long lost friends. I miss those who are gone. I miss cool rainy days in the heat of summer. If I could go to any other time in history, I would hesitate to go because I rather like it here. It can be scary at times, and aging is a bitch. But looking forward provides a better vantage point; that’s why I love road trips. I like to see what’s just over the horizon. I look forward to seeing the future. But forgive me if you find me listening to some “oldies” on Spotify. It’s not nostalgia; I just like the sound.

Things are getting better all the time. This medium allows me to publish, when in the past I would have to find someone to print it and distribute it. And I would have no idea if it reached anyone. In the 90’s you had to rewind your VHS tapes or be charged a fee when you returned them. Now, we have streaming, on-demand video. Oh, I missed SNL. No problem, it’s on Hulu. That’s some righteous shit! Really, things are better now. Yes, there’s still a lot of sexual harassment in the workplace. People are still being denied basic human rights all over the world, even here. And there is exploitation and discrimination the same as before. But anyone can serve in the military now. Anyone can get married now. And anyone can have a voice, instantly, globally.

What do I look forward to for the next 25 years? Everyone pays their fair share in taxes. No corporate golden parachutes. An end to predatory banking. Real campaign finance reform. Affordable higher education. And equal wages. Just to name a few. These are the good new days. Is it perfect? Hell no. But the world will change. It always has, and nothing seems to have ever gotten in the way of change. Just be prepared and embrace it. But don’t forget how we got here.

Big Band Sounds Abound in Cowtown

If you live in or around Fort Worth, Texas (or in my case, within 120 km), and you like swing music and dance, you will enjoy the First Friday Dance at Southside Preservation Hall in the hospital district just south of Downtown. This historic location, maintained by the Southside Preservation Association, was originally a Methodist church, then a boxing gym, and now hosts weekly Tuesday night swing lessons and the monthly dance event. Buddy’s Big Band covers many of the classics, including “Moonlight Serenade”, “In the Mood”, and “Nice Work if You Can Get it,” to name a few. They feature guest singers from time to time. And their sound is phenomenal.

The dance hall is expansive, with tables lining the outer edge. The event starts at 8:00 PM, and it’s clear that people are in it for the duration, with some veterans staking claim to a table early in the evening. The night we visited, we saw many young people, teenagers and early 20-somethings. There were some in their autumn years but with lots of energy. A collection of ringers swarmed the center of the floor for the most part. It was obvious these folks had practised for a while, and they gave the appearance of gearing up for some dance competition in the near future, and they needed to test their skills. Whatever the case, it was a blast.

Swing dance has been in a slow-cooker comeback since the 90’s, with groups like Cherry Poppin Daddies and Squirrel Nut Zippers, and movies like “Blast from the Past.” The Dallas Swing Dance Society keeps a calendar of local dance events, workshops, classes, and more on their site. However, they do not include the First Friday event listing, furthering the chasm between Dallas and Fort Worth.

Buddy’s Big Band is the real deal, and the lead trumpet and tenor sax players were quite good, belting out solos all night. We ducked out for a little while to grab a bite, but on our return, the party was still in full swing (no pun intended). I recommend a high-protein meal. Swing dance requires a lot of energy.

This is a neat little secret in the area, and it surprised me that the dining crowds a few blocks up didn’t even know about what was happening. Dancers were dressed in various levels of formality, some with a t-shirt and a jacket, others wearing a tie and vest combo, and ladies in 1940’s era dresses. One young woman wore a pink poodle skirt. It was fun just being part of the scene.

Early in the evening, the band played a charleston rhythm, and those in the know took to the floor. My wife and I attempted to join in, but clearly, this was a rehearsed number. In any case, we all had a lot of fun.

Four hours of sanding is enough for anyone, and my legs are still sore. It’s obvious I need to get into better shape. I applaud the real dancers. They were really impressive, and the band seemed to take that as some sort of a challenge, playing yet faster tunes. The mirrored ball threw disorienting patterns around the room, but that didn’t seem to have deleterious effects on the dancers. And the band played on…

The next event is scheduled for March 4. We will probably skip it, but only because there is a dance workshop in Dallas that Saturday, and we need pointers.

Allons-y!

Beauty

I was watching Youtube tonight, listening to “Fiddler on the Roof” and some “modern” sacred music as well. It was a welcome respite from the noisy backdrop of political lambaste, rumors on the internet about various government conspiracies, violence, calamity, and the turmoil of our world. Therefore, I turn to music. Not just any music, but a sound for the mood, be it Mozart or Sleater-Kinney. I have my moments when both will suffice.

But the songs tonight reminded me that there is beauty in the world. Maybe not that anyone can see right now, but it’s there, like the stars in the day time. You can’t see them, but they are there. There are a lot of voices drowning out this beauty. Loud, obnoxious voices filled with hate and anger. I have been one of these voices recently. I have been angry at times. But I am grateful for the peace I get when I can get it.

You don’t have to be particularly religious to appreciate sacred music. But I grew up with these tunes, so I am comforted in the sounds, the colors, if you will, of the choral ensemble.

There is a good Arabic proverb that says, essentially, “if the next thing you say is not more beautiful than silence, be still.” I wish most of the world would be guided by this principle. But sometimes we could use a little ugliness. Besides, one’s perception of beauty could be wildly different from the next. I mention Sleater-Kinney again, because I find beauty in the piercing vocals of Carrie Brownstein. Some might find it offensive. There’s no accounting for taste.

Find something beautiful that will bring you joy. It’s more difficult than you think. Turning off the world requires a lot of strength. Gather it up. The world will still be there when you get back. Be careful not to allow the turmoil creep into your state of bliss. Somehow, I find moments when I can really, truly cut myself off, as it were (since I am browsing Youtube, and anything can pop up next.) But it’s amazing when I get in the right groove. I guess it’s like when a surfer picks up the perfect wave she’s been waiting for all morning. Or so I’m told.

I am fortunate that I also get to create. I get to contribute to the beauty of the world. I don’t get to spend as much time as I’d like producing art and music, photos and so forth. I suppose I could spend less time on Youtube. My day job is technical and does not allow for much in the way of creativity. But I have to produce documentation, so I tend embellish a bit.

It’s good when you have the opportunity to escape. It’s my wish that everyone has the chance to take a break and experience some real beauty, especially during this season where the nights are long, and the wind is cold. I like to watch the skies when it’s clear. Winter skies are good for stargazing. Others like a good book. The human experience demands so much from us. We have the right to step back and take a breath. It could change the world for the better. I hope it does.