I am currently in New Delhi, staying where I always stay, in my parents' old house where I spent a large part of my youth. At the request of a friend I photographed the inside and outside of my home and posted some of the pictures on Facebook as three albums showing different parts of the house.
It is nearly the end of winter in India; spring is just a few weeks away. Delhi is full of migratory birds as well as those that live here year round. Many of these birds congregate in the backyard of our house throughout the day, partly because of the grains of rice, crumbs of bread and a clay pot of fresh water to be found there. So far I have caught sight of parrots, nightingales, magpies, doves, crows, sparrows and one species of song bird that I did not recognize. Yesterday afternoon I took my camera to the backyard. After exercising considerable stealth and patience and working around a bright sun, tree branches and skittish birds, I managed to capture some decent shots of the avian visitors. (There were many more blurred shots than pictures in focus) Most of the photos of the Delhi home created some interest on my Facebook pages but the "Birds in the Backyard" collection is the biggest hit by far.
One photo in particular has garnered a lot of admiration. It shows the unnamed "songbird" I mentioned earlier (I have now been told it is an oriental magpie robin) - an unusually friendly bird in a pensive mood and strategically framed. The most common comment that viewers have made about the photo is that it looks like a painting, a Japanese painting in particular. It is true - I thought the same when I saw the photo I had managed to snap - a lucky shot of "life imitating art."
Swedish author Henning Mankell (of 'Wallander' fame) posits in the New York Times that better than calling our species Homo sapiens would be to call us Homo narrans, or Man the Storyteller.
"It struck me as I listened to those two men that a truer nomination for our species than Homo sapiens might be Homo narrans, the storytelling person. What differentiates us from animals is the fact that we can listen to other people’s dreams, fears, joys, sorrows, desires and defeats — and they in turn can listen to ours. Many people make the mistake of confusing information with knowledge. They are not the same thing. Knowledge involves the interpretation of information. Knowledge involves listening. So if I am right that we are storytelling creatures, and as long as we permit ourselves to be quiet for a while now and then, the eternal narrative will continue."
With the explosion of the internet, we have gotten into hyper-storytelling mode. A million new videos, a million new blogs, a billion new tweets... The human animal is quite capable of ignoring the present in its search for the newest narration. So, when do we have the time to stop the talking and tweeting, and really listen? Or can we listen without indulging in a reciprocal "That is your story, and it reminds me very much of the time that I...", starting off on a fresh narrative of our own. Maybe that is the point. I will forgive Mankell his anthropocentrism when he ascribes storytelling skills only to humans. Other species do manifest the storytelling ability, to varying degrees, as far as we can tell from scientific studies. But note, that is only based upon what we know to be provable. Maybe there is still a lot more to be learnt about the storytelling modes and mechanisms among, say, elephants. But we are still preoccupied with figuring out the physical mechanisms rather than going to the next level to find out the grammar of those languages. Till we get out of the unspoken base assumption that we are the only species in the planet capable of narratives, we as humans will continue to ascribe to animals the voices that we cannot hear or understand, making up our own stories about their lives, as they likely do about ours.
The motto below the cat picture, "He who dislikes the cat, was in his former life, a rat." seems no longer apt. We have been seriously maligning rats, who apparently show empathetic behavior and even a degree of altruism that was hitherto unsuspected. Or maybe just unnoticed and unstudied.
"The first evidence of empathy-driven helping behavior in rodents has been observed in laboratory rats that repeatedly free companions from a restraint, according to a new study by University of Chicago neuroscientists."
Empathy has been observed and studied in higher primates and large mammals, but while we use lab rats to test out a variety of medical, biological, even cognitive theories, it hadn't been definitively proved that rats would show any further degree of willingness to assist the helpless. At best, a concept called 'emotional contagion', in which individuals mirror the emotional state of others in the vicinity, had been explored.
This NPR interview, with Peggy Mason, one of the lead authors on the new paper, discusses in layman's terms the design of the experiment and what exactly the results imply. One of the most interesting implications is that this sense of empathy not only extended to the rats freeing trapped companions, but also sharing a special food (chocolate chips) with them.
The interviewer, hoping perhaps to end the segment on a light note threw this out.
"PALCA: Well, all I can say is I wouldn't try that experiment on humans because I'm sure they'd leave me trapped. Most of my colleagues would leave me trapped and go for the chocolate and then let me out...."
So rats, have been getting a bad rap, just because of cultural perceptions that see them as 'fleeing a sinking ship' (where else could they flee when the water enters the area that they are in) and hence cowardly. It has just evolved into a popular meme and mindless pejorative, just as we categorize pigs as dirty (they love baths much like other mammals and avians and wouldn't wallow in the mud if they had access to clean water baths.).
But that might be too much to hope for, that just like the word 'gay' is finally losing its pejorative connotations, the terms ' ___ is a rat' or 'a pig' will make their way into history as quaint archaisms. We could be losing the shorthand associations of those usages in an entire body of literature that would no longer invoke a visceral reaction. Imagine x years in the future, when somebody reading 20th century literature stumbles across "He who dislikes the cat, was in his former life, a rat." and now has to puzzle out a meaning that would have jumped out at him in earlier times.
However that may turn out, in the context of the horrific fire that trapped and killed over 80 people in Kolkata, India, yesterday, with staff running away from the scene instead of assisting, it seems to me that the worst label humans could attach to such behavior is merely 'human'.
NYC Mayor Bloomberg Clears Out Wall Street Executives (Norman Costa)
Future News Network (FNN), December 5, 2011, 6:35 pm EST:
New York City Mayor, Michael R. Bloomberg, defended his decision to clear out the top executives of the finance, banking, insurance, and investment companies who have a presence in the Wall Street area of lower Manhattan.
At a press conference that ended only moments ago, Mayor Bloomberg justified the raids on corporate offices that began this morning at 10:00 am, EST.
Over 600 middle and upper level executives were expelled from their offices, with approximately 387 being arrested for a variety of charges including disorderly conduct, refusal to comply with a lawful order, and assaulting a police officer.
Twelve police officers and as many as 32 executives were taken to local hospitals for injuries related to the police operation, and at least one police officer is in serious condition after being struck in the face with an executive's Stueben Glass award statue that was on her desk.
One week ago Bloomberg released a statement apologizing for ordering the expulsion of peaceful OWS demonstrators from Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan in the early morning hours of November 15, 2011.
He said he had, "...and epiphanial moment, and personal spiritual awakening, after realizing that the demonstrators were the real victims, and that the perpetrators of suffering and loss for the entire country were unscrupulous, immoral, and greedy corporate executives."
The Mayor went on to say that, "...corporate America, as a whole, contributes greatly to our society and economy, but these leeches want all the blood they can get their hands on, even if they don't need it."
When questioned about the legality of ordering the raids on executive offices, Bloomberg said he was taking a moral stand against the kind of greed that inflicts suffering on so many people.
Mayor Bloomberg refused to comment about learning, two weeks ago, that four of his grand nieces and nephews were ruined by the financial collapse, and that one had committed suicide, leaving a widow and three orphans.
India Used to Be Intimidating. Today, Not So Much. (Norman Costa)
Once again, Ruchira, I take a moment to read your post, Overselling India, and write a comment, and in no time there are too many words to put in a comment block. So here is a new post, and I hope you and others may find it interesting.
I do not know whether to describe Overselling India as interesting, fascinating, a little petulant, intriguing, or bemused. Of course, I am not really looking for the word that describes your thoughts, rather, a way to describe my reaction. I guess the best way to describe my reaction is, “I have to think about it.”
My reaction is personal, and self-referential. That is all I have to go on, so here it is.
In my younger days, I would not have understood your exception to the idea that India is cut from whole cloth. I and all other Americans knew India through the movies. The plot settings, landscape backdrops, costumes, and characters were all the same. To the extent that stories varied, they were still derivative of Kipling and the 'high achievement' of Victoria's empire. In short, there was only one India, and only one experience.
With all the diversity we have in the US, we can still think of ourselves as one America – if only because anyone can arrive on our shores and get permits and licenses to open a business, drive a car, or travel in a matter of hours. It is the same for everyone. The Statue of Liberty is still iconic for America as the Taj Mahal is for India. What may be different, I think, is that the Statue of Liberty is a near sacred object for many Americans. Immigrants who arrived in New York harbor on a ship never forgot the sight of Lady Liberty, nor the deep emotions the felt.
Animals entered my life very early. Since I was about four or five years old until I was a teenager, a parade of dogs and birds came through our home. I would become attached to every one of them and their death or disappearance invariably caused me grief. Even though all the family members were involved in the care of the pets, my mother noted that I tended to become unusually close to them. I was always very fond of cats but except for the occasional stray cat that was fed fish scraps and platters of milk outside the home, in the courtyard or the verandah, a pet feline had never lived with us. That changed in 1974 when one afternoon in New Delhi, I brought home a beautiful ginger and white kitten (probably a couple of weeks old) handed over to me by a group of frantic children on the street who were trying to save him from a big dog. I named him Tuni and he charmed the entire household with his friendly demeanor and beautiful looks. Tuni disappeared one day and never came back, leaving all of us sad and helpless. Many years later, (Omaha, 1991) at the urging of my son, we adopted a pair of kitties. They were brothers and we called them Raja and Ali. Playful, loving, friendly, each with his idiosyncratic ways, they kept us and each other engaged for many years. Raja succumbed to cancer in 2005 at the age of fourteen despite many heroic efforts on our part and that of our cats' wonderful vet, Dr. Cheryl Stanley. For the last five and a half years his brother Ali became my sole feline companion. Ali died at home last Saturday (January 15, 2011) peacefully, gracefully - suffering from no discernible illness, pain or distress. He had been steadily losing weight in the last one year but there was really nothing much else wrong with him. He had slowed down but continued to enjoy life till the very end. Four months short of his twentieth birthday, he just drifted away due to old age. His death came rapidly and although I was not prepared for it, it was probably the best thing for him. The following is a message I wrote to a friend soon after his death. It captures my immediate and spontaneous recollection of the last hours with Ali and needless to say, at a time when I was very, very sad.
The house feels eerily weird. I have been functioning in a zoned-out way since yesterday. This morning was particularly hard when I got up from bed and Ali was not waiting for me to tend to him and serve him his breakfast.
Ali had been showing his age in the last year or so but had remained in good health overall. Last Thursday evening, he began to show weakness in his hind legs and started to fall down while walking. He still was able to go to the bathroom and to his water bowl on his own. Since Friday morning his condition took a steady turn for the worse and he was having great difficulty in walking more than a few steps. Although he continued to drink water, he did not eat anything at all. On Saturday morning, we took him to see Dr. Stanley, his vet of many years, for an emergency visit . His weight was a mere 4.4 pounds, down from the already low 5.3 just a month ago. (Ali had weighed between 12 - 13 pounds in his prime) He was fading fast. The doctor said that although he did not seem to be in pain, all his systems were shutting down gradually and she predicted that he would not last the night. She gave us the choice of either euthanizing him or letting him die at home in his own time. Since he was not in pain or in any obvious distress, we decided to bring him home. Sudhir and I kept vigil over him - he was by our side all the time. Gradually, he seemed to go deeper and deeper into oblivion. He seemed to stir only on hearing my voice.
Around 4:45pm, he stopped breathing and his heart stopped after a few long breaths. He was in my lap with Sudhir beside us. Amazingly enough, half an hour prior to that he had opened his eyes, raised his head, looked at me, meowed a few times and gently bitten my arm. After that he became completely quiet, except for his breathing which became shallower by the minute. I don't know what his final movement and meowing meant, whether he even knew me by then. But I will always remember that last gesture as his way of saying goodbye.
I had a hard time when Raja died of cancer five years ago. But Ali kept me going in his absence, forcing me to tend to his routine. Now Sudhir and I are feeling disoriented without a cat around us. Our human children left home a long time ago and the cats kept the home lively with their child like presence and playfulness. I think with Ali gone, we have now become empty-nesters in the true sense of the word. I know that we will adjust, focusing on other things. It will be a different kind of life. But that's okay. Ali died the way he deserved to go - surrounded by love. Over time, I am sure the painful thoughts of Ali's last hours will be replaced by memories of the good times we had together, just as it was for Raja and Tuni whose death and disappearance too were devastating for me.
I don't know how one takes an honest measure of one's life but if it is by counting the cats we have loved, it is probably as good a yard stick as any.
(From left to right: Ali and Raja)
(I rarely write anything so personal on the blog. My husband and son urged me to write it in order to come to terms with Ali's absence in my life from now on. Our animal companions are some of the best people we know.)
If this investigating professor is to be believed, it started several weeks before the Deepwater Horizon rig, positioned several miles offshore, drilling in 5000 ft deep ocean, was due to be capped and moved to another location for drilling. Based on his interviews with people who were involved in the rig's operation
"There was an "intense kick" of natural gas caused the rig to be shut down over fears of a catastrophic explosion just weeks before one such influx of gas did so."
Deepwater Horizon is one of the most advanced rigs of its kind. Or at least, it was, till it became an expensive piece of trash(albeit insured for up to $560 million), lying 1500 ft from its original position on the sea bed. The Swiss-based company Transocean, one of the largest contractors for oil drilling, owned and operated over 150 similar rigs for various oil company customers all over the world. Deepwater Horizon was being used to extract sweet crude for the BP oil company, moving from location to location as it completed the drilling, relying on precise positioning in the ocean locked in place by GPS systems.
After the drilling operation was completed, BP had another contractor, Halliburton, come in to cap the drilled location, and that was completed 'successfully', according to the parties involved. Until it wasn't, and 20 hours later, on April 20, the oil rig exploded catastrophically. The initial days were spent in looking for survivors and the rig sank on April 22. For a few days, reassuring statements regarding the small amount of oil spilling into the gulf were being put out, but not for long. The spill was growing at a tremendous rate and the amount released per day was eventually admitted to be five times as much as had been previously thought: 210,000 gallons a day, rather than 40,000.
In a hearing started yesterday in Congress, and continuing today, the blame-game of Musical chairs continues with full gusto, while the administration mulls its options to split the Mineral Management Services into separate bodies for regulation and lease oversight, given that the unholy nexus between the MMS officials and oil industry executives contributed considerably to lax regulation and this disaster.
"A top American executive for BP, Lamar McKay, said a critical safety device known as a blowout-preventer failed catastrophically. Separately, the owner of the rig off Louisiana's coast said that BP managed it and was responsible for all work conducted at the site. A third company defended work that it performed on the deepwater oil well as "accepted industry practice" prior to last month's explosion.
"We are looking at why the blowout preventer did not work because that was to be the fail-safe in case of an accident," McKay, chairman and president of BP America, said in testimony prepared for a Senate hearing Tuesday. A copy of his testimony was obtained by The Associated Press. "Transocean's blowout preventer failed to operate."
The chief executive for Swiss-based Transocean, which owned the oil rig and the blowout preventer, shifted blame to BP.
"All offshore oil and gas production projects begin and end with the operator, in this case BP," CEO Steven Newman said in his Senate testimony, also obtained by the AP. Newman said that BP was responsible for submitting a detailed plan specifying where and how a well is to be drilled, cased, cemented and completed.
Newman also said that BP's contractor, Halliburton Inc., was responsible for encasing the well in cement, putting a temporary plug in the top of the well, and ensuring the cement's integrity. That cementing process was dictated by BP's well plan, Newman said.
A Halliburton executive, Tim Probert, said the company safely finished a cementing operation 20 hours before the rig went up in flames. Probert said Halliburton completed work on the well according to accepted industry practice and at the direction of federal regulators."
Efforts to manage the spill ( now exceeding 3 million gallons and counting) included the use of a high-tech dome to cap the spill and siphon off the oil through a sort of funnel to a ship waiting above it. But this attempt was doomed, with methane ice-crystal formed inside the dome, buoying it up too high to contain the leak.
""I wouldn't say it failed yet," said Doug Suttles, chief operating officer of BP, the London-based company that owns the leaking well. "What I would say is what we attempted to do last night didn't work."
Low-tech attempts are being made as well, by volunteer groups such as Matter of Trust. They are calling for donations of human and pet hair to use in creating home-made booms and mats to soak up the oil from the spill, based on prior experience with the Cosco Busan oil spill clean-up.
As we humans bemoan the loss of pristine beaches, now risking the messy tarballs that are washing up on beaches from Louisiana upto Galveston, and Florida, and the terrible smells wafting on-shore from the gazillion gallons floating on the surface as the spill takes on the dimensions of Texas in square miles, we are but the chickens while the birds, the fish and the shrimp are the pigs. ( Scrum terminology: Chickens are involved, but the pigs are committed.)
We've all seen the one gannet that seems to be the only bird being cleaned after the disaster, on myriad TV screens and internet article photos. But there are others, unseen and unsung, being presumably cleaned of the oil in their feathers. But no hard numbers seem to exist for these unfortunates.
One German expert went so far as to advocate euthanizing them, stating that their survival rates even after cleaning and release into the wild are not good.
But I suspect her advice stems from the use of older technology. Newer studies with more recent oil spills and cleaning methods have shown that while mortality is still higher than normal for cleaned and rehabilitated birds, released birds that make it past the initial month or so have as good a chance as any unaffected bird to survive in the wild.
As for aquatic life, the list of risks are too long to enumerate, all depending on the types of terrain along the coastline where the spill will come ashore.Ecosystems in the marshlands,lowlands and mangroves are most at risk compared with sand and gravel beaches,or even the deep sea, where fish populations can swim away and evade the worst effects of the spilled oil. But bottom-oriented populations of fish that live close to the ocean bed could be impacted by the tarry deposits that remain in the vicinity of the well-head. as will predator species that rely on them for food.
Fishing is done for several years, possibly, in the Gulf of Mexico. Maybe, some day as fishing trawlers move back into the zone, they may find a new kind of fish population, evolved to deal with the exigencies of surviving in polluted ocean waters, and not necessarily ready for human consumption for another generation.
In 1952, when European ethologists still worked on instinct theories and American behaviorists still trained rats to press levers, [Kinji] Imanishi wrote a little book that criticized the view of animals as mindless automatons. He inserted an imaginary debate between a wasp, a monkey, an evolutionist and a layman, in which the possibility was raised that animals other than ourselves might have culture. The proposed definition of culture was simple: if individuals learn from one another, their behavior may, over time, become different from that in other groups, thus creating a characteristic culture. Soon thereafter, his students demonstrated that the potato washing started by a juvenile female monkey on Koshima Island spread to other members of her troop. The troop had developed a potato washing culture. [Photo, taken by the author, shows Japanese macaques on Koshima Island are still washing potatoes half a century later.]
Plato’s “great chain of being”, which places humans above all other animals, is absent from Eastern philosophy. In most Eastern belief systems, the human soul can reincarnate in many shapes and forms, so all living things are spiritually connected. A man can become a fish and a fish can become God. The fact that primates, our closest animal relatives, are native to many Eastern countries, has only helped to strengthen this belief in the interconnectedness of life. Unlike European fables, which are populated with ravens, rabbits, foxes and the like, Eastern folk tales and poetry are laced with references to gibbons and monkeys. The three wise men, or magi, of the Bible are matched in the East by the three wise macaques of Tendai Buddhism (of “See no Evil, Hear no Evil, Speak no Evil” fame). [Photo shows the three wise monkeys in a carving at the Toshogu Shrine.]
Feeling humility towards animals affects the way we study them. If we believe the soul can move from monkey to human and back, there are no grounds for resisting the idea that we are historically connected. So, it’s hardly surprising that evolution was never controversial in the East: it was a logical and welcome thought. As Itani put it, “Japanese culture does not emphasize the difference between people and animals and so is relatively free from the spell of anti-anthropomorphism”.
Visual computations tend to be generically hard and resource intensive. For example, our state-of-the-art algorithm for yaw detection in flight apparently needs Moore's Law engorged Intel Cores to do anything useful. And yet mere flies seem to manage the number-crunching just fine...The trick at least in this instance seems to be that flies aren't using our stupid state-of-the-art algorithm. Theirs is vastly nicer:
By turning the brain cell activity underlying fly eyesight into mathematical equations, researchers have found an ultra-efficient method for pulling motion patterns from raw visual data.[...]
“We can build a system that works perfectly well, inspired by biology, without having a complete understanding of how the components interact. It’s a non-linear system,” said David O’Carroll, a computational neuroscientist who studies insect vision at Australia’s University of Adelaide. “The number of computations involved is quite small. We can get an answer using tens of thousands of times less floating-point computations than in traditional ways.”[...]
The researchers’ algorithm is composed of a series of five equations through which data from cameras can be run. Each equation represents tricks used by fly circuits to handle changing levels of brightness, contrast and motion, and their parameters constantly shift in response to input. Unlike Lucas-Kanade, the algorithm doesn’t return a frame-by-frame comparison of every last pixel, but emphasizes large-scale patterns of change. In this sense, it works a bit like video-compression systems that ignore like-colored, unshifting areas.
There's probably some generic lesson here - the set of efficient solutions to any problem could well be vastly larger than the subset which makes use of well-separated, clear, extensible cases, modular reasoning, simple and readily debugged steps and the like, which subset in turn is probably larger than that of solutions people tend to come up with. Nature, with no particular need for comprehensibility or ease of maintenance, can happily brute-force out methods that work rather well while making no sense.
I'm sure that's overstated - eyes work in quite sensible ways - while R&D and further inquiry will doubtless clarify what now seems inexplicable because of novelty. Still, I shouldn't be surprised if many mind-tricks turned out to be like this - no human smart enough to do the amazing thing would have the cheek to do it this maddening, meaningless, hideous way.
To the English, a grave is like their second home (or castle). Dead Londoners do not want to share graves with the previously dead, even though London is running out of space for the dead. (Why has cremation not caught on as a perfectly private and hygienic option in the thoroughly modern British capital?)
LONDON | The city's largest cemetery is having a tough time convincing Londoners to share a grave with a stranger.
"A lot of people say, 'I'm not putting my dad in a secondhand grave,' " said Gary Burks, superintendent and registrar of the City of London Cemetery, final resting place of close to 1 million Londoners. "You have to deal with that mind-set."
The problem is a very British one. Many other European countries regularly reuse old graves after a couple of decades. Britain does not, as a result of Victorian hygiene obsession, piecemeal regulation and national tradition. For many, an Englishman's tomb, like his home, is his castle.
That view is also common in the United States, which like Britain tends to regard graves as eternal and not to be disturbed - although the United States has a lot more space, so the burial crisis is less acute.
In much of Britain, reusing old graves remains illegal, but the City of London cemetery is exploiting a legal loophole that allows graves in the capital with remaining space in them to be reclaimed after 75 years.
Mr. Burks points to a handsome marble obelisk carrying the details of the recently departed man buried underneath. The name of a Victorian Londoner interred in the same plot is inscribed on the other side. The monument has simply been turned around for its new user - whose family, Mr. Burks says, got a fancy stone monument for much less than the market price by agreeing to share.
On to animals. Not the scary vampires and spiders of Halloween but the cute cuddly ones frolicking in and around our homes. A report in the New Scientist rates household pets for the relative size of their carbon foot prints. Owning a mid to large size dog is apparently as eco-unfriendly as owning an SUV. Not surprisingly, the smaller and self cleaning average cat leaves a paw print that is slightly smaller than that of a Volkswagen Golf. Both are hazardous to wild life and can spread infections.
SHOULD owning a great dane make you as much of an eco-outcast as an SUV driver? Yes it should, say Robert and Brenda Vale, two architects who specialise in sustainable living at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand. In their new book, Time to Eat the Dog: The real guide to sustainable living, they compare the ecological footprints of a menagerie of popular pets with those of various other lifestyle choices - and the critters do not fare well.
As well as guzzling resources, cats and dogs devastate wildlife populations, spread disease and add to pollution. It is time to take eco-stock of our pets.
To measure the ecological paw, claw and fin-prints of the family pet, the Vales analysed the ingredients of common brands of pet food. They calculated, for example, that a medium-sized dog would consume 90 grams of meat and 156 grams of cereals daily in its recommended 300-gram portion of dried dog food. At its pre-dried weight, that equates to 450 grams of fresh meat and 260 grams of cereal. That means that over the course of a year, Fido wolfs down about 164 kilograms of meat and 95 kilograms of cereals.
It takes 43.3 square metres of land to generate 1 kilogram of chicken per year - far more for beef and lamb - and 13.4 square metres to generate a kilogram of cereals. So that gives him a footprint of 0.84 hectares. For a big dog such as a German shepherd, the figure is 1.1 hectares.
Meanwhile, an SUV - the Vales used a 4.6-litre Toyota Land Cruiser in their comparison - driven a modest 10,000 kilometres a year, uses 55.1 gigajoules, which includes the energy required both to fuel and to build it. One hectare of land can produce approximately 135 gigajoules of energy per year, so the Land Cruiser's eco-footprint is about 0.41 hectares - less than half that of a medium-sized dog.
The Vales are not alone in reaching this conclusion. When New Scientistasked John Barrett at the Stockholm Environment Institute in York, UK, to calculate eco-pawprints based on his own data, his figures tallied almost exactly. "Owning a dog really is quite an extravagance, mainly because of the carbon footprint of meat," he says.
Then there are all the other animals we own. Doing similar calculations for a variety of pets and their foods, the Vales found that cats have an eco-footprint of about 0.15 hectares (slightly less than a Volkswagen Golf), hamsters come in at 0.014 hectares apiece (buy two, and you might as well have bought a plasma TV) and canaries half that. Even a goldfish requires 0.00034 hectares (3.4 square metres) of land to sustain it, giving it an ecological fin-print equal to two cellphones.
This kind of analysis appeals to David Mackay, a physicist at the University of Cambridge and the UK government's new energy adviser. He believes we should put as much thought into choosing a pet as we do into buying a car. "If a lifestyle choice uses more than 1 per cent of your energy footprint, then it is worthwhile reflecting on that choice and seeing what you can do about it," he says. "Pets definitely deserve attention: by my estimates, the energy footprint of a cat is about 2 per cent of the average British person's energy footprint - and it's bigger for most dogs."
I think it might properly raise moral consciousness if someone opened a dalmatian farm, where free-range dogs were raised in pleasant environs, on natural, antibody-free meat, killed painlessly and humanely and sold as steak.
Why this particular rant? Well, here's a nice article encouraging people to forgive transgressors:
A central message is that harboring a grudge appears to be detrimental to both psychological and physical well-being. "People who have been able to forgive show clear health benefits," says Kathleen Lawler-Row, who chairs the psychology department at East Carolina University in Greenville, N.C., and has published her findings in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine and the Journal of Psychophysiological Research. "Whether we're looking at heart rate and blood pressure or whether we're looking at the number of medicines someone is on, their quality of sleep or the number of physical symptoms they report. Almost every way I've thought to measure it, people who have been able to think forgivingly show health benefits."
The article goes on in this vein for a while. Now, I've often thought there's some considerable credulous wish-thinking about the forgiveness industry, and maybe I'll write about that some day. Still, obviously forgiveness is a good thing to do at least some of the time, and as the author notes, it can confer health benefits upon the forgiver, test his character, aid offender rehabilitation and the like.
But who is to be the target of our great, ennobling, healthful forgiveness? Who might we be in a rage over? George Bush? Osama bin Laden? Narendra Modi? The Burmese junta? Pol Pot? Bernie Madoff? No, it's Michael Vick, assailer of dog. Because that is the great moral dilemma, straining our moral fiber, corroding our innards as we smolder. Seriously. I understand people have pets, and indeed I care about animal welfare. The arguments of someone like Peter Singer gain some purchase upon me (they made me go vegetarian), but this Vick hysteria strikes me as madness.
I really do wish there were such a farm, perhaps in New Jersey. It's existence might cause some moral reflection. I assume and hope people would continue to think it bad to electrocute dogs for fighting badly. I also don't doubt that at least some people in a reflective equilibrium would continue to attach a special moral significance to canis lupus familiaris, perhaps because we've coevolved with them or something. But I do hope they'd find it at least slightly weird to get so frenzied over dog fighting, while countenancing cock-fighting or bull-fighting, and while consuming more meat and dairy than people ever have in the past. There probably isn't enough significance attached to the welfare of animals at large, but it also seems obvious to me that too much is attached to that of cute, photogenic or cuddly ones, and it being that being easy on the eye has no particular ecological or ethical significance, that over-weighting seems untenable.
1. I imagine the average music listener has as much trouble teasing apart the different musical lines, instruments and voices in a symphony (say) as I do. Why isn't there a product category on the market where the different voices in a piece are all recorded individually? With a suitable software interface, you'd be able to hear just the first violin, or only the brass or only what the pianist is playing with his right hand, and so on. Or various toggle-able combinations of the elements. Plus of course, you could turn everything on and hear a serviceable, though hardly great, recording of the piece. The time I can imagine spending with such a CD is almost limitless; it'd be like having this for every piece I cared about. Surely the market can't be that small, and the production certainly isn't difficult. Why's no-one doing this?
2. I've often harbored a certain dim, masochistic sense that bans related to passive smoking have been less about health than about the general ickiness of the habit, the smell of the noxious weed and a certain puritanical desire to control and command. Indeed, I'd assumed the actual health risk from second hand smoke was minimal. I still assume those other factors are salient, but apparently this last isn't so. Orac at Scienceblogs has a very nice post up about secondhand smoking, that gets into the various studies performed, the mechanisms of consensus-generation and the politics in forming, disputing and proceeding from that consensus. Two takeaway numbers, in case you don't read the whole thing:
- "A person who smokes two packs a day smoker for 40-50 years will have approximately a 20% chance of dying of lung cancer."
- "In adults, numerous studies support the existence of approximately a 25% elevated risk of lung cancer from those exposed to secondhand smoke chronically."
3. This New York Times story is almost perfect for transporting a certain sort of mind into mystical ecstasies. It has all of:
- natural creatures who've suffered greatly under Man, yet absolve him of his sins
- cuddly, natural Disney creatures to boot, none of this scary, bloody competitive evolution stuff around.
- wise Natives who, with other ways of knowing, have penetrated to the core of Deep Truths White Man is only dimly coming to appreciate.
- concomitant dismissals of hard scientists, who've not truly achieved Wisdom for all their appropriation of cold, technical facts.
Actually, it's a pretty good piece for all the scorn I've heaped upon it. The stolid insistence that one not anthropomorphize the animal world is only going to be so useful, and unless one is a creationist other animals will necessarily be seen to exhibit many qualities we do in some form, including emotional ones.
Season's Greetings to our readers and my co-bloggers. Hope everyone returns to A.B. refreshed and cheered after the holiday festivities are over and done with for the year. I am going on a short trip and won't be blogging for some time. Unless someone else finds the time to post, the front page will remain static for a few days. I will leave you with a potpourri of unrelated but interesting links to muse over if you find time to visit during the holiday rush.
Two thoughtful essays about the recent bombings in Mumbai and the tensions that tug at the national fabric of India - Ramachandra Guha in the WSJ and Badri Raina in ZNet.
It's strange. I can remember all these things about Brenin and Yukon and Sitka. I can remember holding Brenin up to my face and looking in his yellow wolf eyes. I can remember the way he felt, with his soft cub fur, between my hands as I held him. I can still picture clearly Yukon standing up on his hind legs, staring down at me, big feet hanging over the stable door. I can still picture Brenin's brothers and sisters running around the pen, tumbling over each other and jumping back to their feet in glee. But of the person who sold me Brenin, I can remember virtually nothing. Something had already started; a process that would become more and more pronounced as the years rolled on. I was already starting to tune out human beings. When you have a wolf, they take over your life in a way that a dog seldom does. And human company gradually becomes less and less significant for you. I remember his story - at least I think I do - but I don't remember the man.
Taking a bit of a break from the faintly sinister and patently ludicrous political theater surrounding the US presidential campaign, I am happy to bring you news of a different kind.
Stories that lift our spirits very often describe the triumph of the utterly vulnerable - the miserable underdog beating incredible odds. In this particular case, the underdogs happen to be real dogs and this is the heartwarming story of their rescue from debauched cruelty and certain death.
Little over a year ago, we learnt about the criminal activities of ex-NFL star Michael Vickwho was caught and later sentenced to jail for the brutal torture of several pit bulls that he used in illegal dog fighting. Vick is currently in jail serving a sentence of 23 months (too lenient, in my opinion). But what about the abused dogs, some of whom were bred to be vicious killers and others as terrified bait animals? At the time of the court case, the conventional wisdom (including that of various animal welfare organizations) was that the dogs had been so severely abused that they were beyond rehabilitation and needed to be euthanized. But Best Friends, an animal rescue agency in Utah thought otherwise. Volunteers from Best Friends pleaded with the court for a chance to return Vick's dogs to normalcy through patient and humane care. Luckily for the dogs, the judge agreed to give the animals a second chance after the hell hole to which Vick and his cronies had condemned them from puppyhood. The tragic story now has a happy ending. Read about the loving rehabilitation and amazing transformation of the dogs on the Best Friend's website: (I have added Best Friends to the list of animal charities I plan to support regularly)
National Geographic filmed the progress of the vicious, suspicious or coweringly nervous dogs to trusting, playful animals some of whom have already been adopted by dog lovers. The documentary aired on September 5 on the NG channel in their series Dog Town. (Unfortunately I missed the full documentary but saw a few incredibly touching and gratifying scenes from the film on a news show. I hope to watch the episode on September 12 when it will air again.) More about Dog Town and the Best Friends Animal Society in the L.A. Times.
It has been a summer of awe-inspiring, thought-provoking spectacle on television. First the Summer Olympics, then the Democratic and Republican national conventions and now the return of "DogTown." If that sounds sarcastic or snarky, it isn't meant to. The two-hour season premiere of the popular National Geographic Channel showis titled "Saving the Michael Vick Dogs," and if there were such a thing as an Olympics for animal rescue and rehabilitation, this would be it.
Last December, the Atlanta Falcons' star quarterback Michael Vick was sentenced to 23 months in prison for operating an illegal dog fighting venture on his Virginia property. Forty-seven pit bulls in various states of physical and psychological damage were found at Vick's Bad Newz Kennels; eight more corpses were discovered buried nearby.
It has been a summer of awe-inspiring, thought-provoking spectacle on television. First the Summer Olympics, then the Democratic and Republican national conventions and now the return of "DogTown." If that sounds sarcastic or snarky, it isn't meant to. The two-hour season premiere of the popular National Geographic Channel show is titled "Saving the Michael Vick Dogs," and if there were such a thing as an Olympics for animal rescue and rehabilitation, this would be it.
Last December, the Atlanta Falcons' star quarterback Michael Vick was sentenced to 23 months in prison for operating an illegal dog fighting venture on his Virginia property. Forty-seven pit bulls in various states of physical and psychological damage were found at Vick's Bad Newz Kennels; eight more corpses were discovered buried nearby.
At the time, many animal rescue experts recommended that the dogs be put down; so traumatic had the abuse been, so long had been their imprisonment that rehabilitation seemed impossible.
Others, including the veterinarians and trainers at Utah's Best Friends Animal Society, argued that the dogs could be saved. A judge finally agreed, and more than half were turned over to various shelters and rescues; the 22 most troubled dogs were sent to Dogtown.
Located on 3,000 acres of canyon country in southern Utah, the Best Friends sanctuary is one of the largest and no doubt the most beautifully located no-kill animal facilities; Dogtown is its canine program. For the past two years, "DogTown" the show has chronicled the staff as it healed and trained various ill, hurt, abused, abandoned and behavior-issue-plagued dogs.
In other words, it's a hard-core dog-lovers kind of show.
But even those folks who have never adopted a dog, loved a dog, pet a dog or met a dog will sit riveted as the four toughest cases of the Vick survivors are brought back from what can be described only as the brink of torture-inflicted canine insanity.
Although the tabloid-style argument over the family shenanigans of the Palins has brought McCain's VP pick into sharp focus, there's another side to the much-vaunted abilities of Gov. Palin that you may not know of yet.
"On March 27, the state House passed House Bill 256, Gov. Sarah Palin's
bill, which allows for no science-based, same-day airborne hunting of
wolves and bears and opens the doors to game-farming in Alaska. It also
allows the lieutenant governor to remove Alaska's ballot measure to vote
again on aerial hunting, thus taking Alaskans' right to vote away."
This is what Airborne hunting of wolves looks like: One of the saddest things
I've seen, akin to the cow mistreatment videos that we blogged about earlier this year.
Hunting for food is one thing. Hunting wolves just for the thrill of the hunt, and that too by air, is another entirely, as is facilitating the horrendous practice.