The sad departure of Alex the Talking Parrot was noted in these pages. And that should have been the end of that. But, it seems that the study of avian intelligence has been perking right along, carried on by clever and intrepid investigators, on many different species with some surprising results. There is story in the Boston Globe which takes a quick fly-over (ouch!) to scan what’s been going on in various labs and research centers. Much of it is pretty surprising. Birds do seem to be, well, pretty smart. In many cases they’re smarter than chimps, which have been our main comparative reference species. Some crows make tools to get at bugs, and improve these tools, and show other crows how to do this. One species of nutcracker can hide more than 30,000 seeds in hundreds of locations, and remember what’s where. Stored food can be pilfered, and species seem to re-hide food if they think they have been observed. If the birds have themselves stolen food, they tend to re-hide a lot, figuring, if I can do it, so can some other bird…a kind of insight. And several song birds create very complex patterns of vocalization, to which they add new “tunes” each year, and, in order to accomplish this, they re-create about 1% of the song center’s nerve cells every day. Our brains and birds’ brains have different anatomy, so birdie intelligences seem to have evolved in different ways. One theory states that the fact that birds live in very complex social groupings is an important “motor” in this development. We’ve been looking at chimps, and bonobos, and monkeys and other simians to elucidate the nature of intelligence. Wouldn’t it be a gas if we’ve been looking in the wrong place, or at least, not looking at one important place. Until now, at least. My favorite thing in the BG story is the skill Japanese crows have developed of dropping nuts onto city intersections, so that cars can crack the shells. The crows come down to get the meat, but only when the light turns red! Bird brain indeed!
Jules Verne. Who hasn’t heard the name? JV died in 1905, a wealthy man, who had boasted to his fellow stockbrokers that he would become richer than they did, because he had come up with a new kind of literature that he estimated would sell big. The centennary in 2005 kicked off a kind of Verne Revival, with two biographies and the re-issue of a number of the standard works, in addition to first-time publication of others which had not made into print for various reasons. The University of Nebraska Press and Wesleyan University Press are among the publishers releasing new Verne series.Oxford University Press is a major player also. UNESCO rated Verne as one of the Ten Most Translated authors, and of course there have been numerous film or video versions of such favorites as Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, and Around the World in 80 Days. Part of the Verne revival includes scholarly efforts to prepare better English translations, since those we now rely on are rather poor. It’s also amusing to note that Verne’s contemporaries bought his books because they though they would be “improving” for their kids…smuggling some science into the young lads’ and lassies’ escapist reading. Today’s parents who torment their kids with Latin vocabulary flash cards while the moppets eat their breakfast oatmeal are nothing new. The Grouch’s favorite JV was The Mysterious Island, but it was so long, long ago. It had all the makins:
a crash on an “uncharted” island, a band of survivors who are helped by some hidden agency or person they can’t identify, danger, pluck. It was perfect. Apparently ABC thought so too, since Lost,the popular TV series, seems to borrow liberally if without acknowledgement from JV’s opus. Or maybe it would be fairer to say that both pay hommage to the Granddaddy Island story:Robinson Crusoe. And, let’s not forget Gilligan:
Here’s an article from the Wall Street Journal:
WSJ on JV
If that fails, go the Scitech Daily Review and link from there:
SciTech Daily Review
The prestigious Max Planck Gesellschaft, one of Germany’s premier research groups, has entered into an agreement with Florida officials to open a branch MP Institute on the Jupiter campus of Florida Atlantic University, near the site of a planned Scripps Institute facility. Bioimaging will for the subject focus of the new Institute. MPG has two arrangements, described as partnerships, with universities in China and Argentina, but the Florida unit will be the first full-fledge Institute to be created outside Germany. If the Florida arrangement works out, MPG plans to open other Institutes in other sites. The passage to Jupiter has not been easy, and personal connections, hand shaking and some sharp elbows in the Florida legislature all played a part, as did the friendship between Peter Gruss, MPG president, and Scripps chief exective Richard Lerner. It all looks pretty good. Some staff are already working in temporary quarters, and official opening should come in 2009.
BioMed Central, or BMC, is the UK-based open access publisher of journals in the life sciences. Authors wishing to submit manuscripts to BMC pay a processing fee, or they get their funders to do it. When accepted, the finished article goes online and can be read by anyone, anywhere, at any time…it’s open access, or OA, see? It was not clear if the OA business model would work, over the long haul anyway. It still isn’t. But OA supporters had some good news when the same group that publishes BioMed Central announced the impending launch of a companion series of journals in math and physics to be called Physmath Central. Not exactly a title to make hearts beat faster, is it? But, it was probably inevitable. After all “central” has to go in there someplace. And you need to say what it’s all about, so the choices are rather limited. Those who favor the Open Access model of publishing will take heart. And those hoping that OA would dry up and blow away will scowl. Phys/Math authors will have another outlet in which to share their work. Read about it:
In a footnote, or perhaps, clawnote, to our story about the demise of Alex the talking parrot, the Grouch wants to refer readers to Sunday’s NYTimes, which carried an article about the late African gray, and the controversy which surrounds the research in which he was the leading figure. Dr.Irene Pepperberg of Brandeis University worked with the A-bird for many years and she advanced some rather startling claims about what he could do. Other researchers reject her interpretations of what Alex was coming out with, saying that he was indeed very clever, for a bird, but really nothing more was in play than a subtle form of conditioning, and training. There is a long history of “clever Hans” studies, in which animals seem to have unusual powers of, say, counting, when in fact they are relying on clues from their attendant human. Maybe, but I like to think of Alex up there in parrot heaven, nibbling on a saltene, and watching the dispute. Death, shmeath, he’s stil the star of the show.
Alex, the talking grey parrot who became the darlling of numerous nerdy TV science shows, died recently at the uncommonly early (for a parrot) age of 31. Researchers left the guy in his quarters at the end of the day, apparently fine, and were astonished to find him dead the next morning. Parrots of this species often live to age 50 or beyond, so to die at 31 seems a bit outside the parameters, as they say. In his career, Alex managed to acquire a working vocabulary of over 100 English words, which puts him on a par with or even well above just about all show business celebrities and major political figures on our national scene. When you add to this the fact that Alex could also distinguish shapes and colors, and identify them accurately and consistently (no guessing!), his endowments and accomplishments make him sound like a very promising political candidate, especially when compared to the, dare I say “flock” now parading around. He was unfailingly neat, well groomed and careful of his person. Alex also treated the humans around him with courtesy and real affection. Again, comparisons to national figures leave the latter coming up very short indeed. But, cruel fate has cut off this promise. He will be missed.
NIH Director Dr. Elias Zerhouni has been leading efforts to reform the review process for submitted grant proposals. Nature for this week has an article describing what has been going on along these lines. Staff from the Center for Scientific Review have been meeting with various interested parties, and in addition the Center has solicited comments and suggestions, over 2000 of which have been received so far. NIH has called for bold, even “radical” suggestions to move the process along, while cutting administrative tangles. Draft suggestions for review are supposed to be released this winter, and some pilot projects should be launched this spring. Twenty years ago, 1800 reviewers handled the submissions. Today, upto ten times that many people can be engaged, some on an ad hoc and temporary basis,to handle the load. Some of the suggestions involve a shorter grant cycle, greater use of electronic methods, mandatory service by senior scientists to add expertise and perspective. All this and more, as they say on TV.
Read about it here:
Here’s a little something to brighten the early morning of any researcher who has sent off a good manuscript, only to get it back with some unpleasant annotations and a note that it just won’t do. Alfred A. Knopf Inc, was famous as a publishing house with superior instincts for good work. The house acquired an almost legendary reputation for unerring judgments on quality…bring in something good and Knopf will see that it gets published. Well, yes and no. Yes, they did publish the work of 17 Nobelists and 47 Pulitzer prize winners. No, they did not have an unerring eye for good stuff, because they turned down or passed on works, the rejection of which should cause eyebrows to rise well above the hairline and almost to the crown of the head. Who would pass on Orwell’s Animal Farm? or Nabokov’s Lolita? ,or, get this, The Diary of a Young Girl by, you guessed it, Anne Frank? What about Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth A.A. Knopf did, and on more besides these. So, the Knopf manuscript readers, who were supposed to look for commercial possibility as well as literary merit, were not seeing something, or perhaps were seeing something too clearly and that prevented them from seeing something else. The reader for Animal Farm for instance, seems to have taken the thing literally,as a story about pigs and horses and all, instead of as an absolutely perfect political satire of Soviet Communism. How could s/he not have gotten that? But, if you think about it, the readers have a tough job. They have to consider both quality, and whether the thing will sell. Some of the rejection letters written by Knopf himself stress this point; it may be good, but it won’t sell. It’s got to sell. Publishing is not a charity. Who would want to buy and read a book about a bunch of quite ordinary people hiding in an attic? Or animals who take over a farm…sounds like Peter Rabbit….No way! But something in the larger culture was waiting for exactly that and when it did appear, bingo! It’s all a mystery. The rejection file is in the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at UT in Austin, and there’s a story about Knopf bad calls in the New York Times, for September 9. It’s by David Oshinsky, a historian who looked at the history section of the rejection files and chuckles some.
All right, I admit, it was pretty bad. But, it’s late Friday afternoon and I think a little stooping is allowed.The idea is redeeming;SciFI fans in China use topics, themes and characters in science fiction as subjects of intense debate, treating them as surrogates for the aspects of life there which they want to criticize, but dare not. There is an authority for this view and it’s Robert J. Sawyer, a Canadian practitioner of the Noble Art and the author of some 17 SciFi novels. Sawyer recently won the prestigious Galaxy award at the China International Science Fiction and Fantasy Festival and Conference, held in Chengdu. He also had the rare distinction for a writer of any genre of being mobbed by enthusiastic fans. The Blogging Grouch has written about Mr. Sawyer before, admiringly so. Now confirmation comes from the other side of the Pacific. Using SciFi as a blind behind which one can ruminate about topics which it would be unhealthy to discuss in ordinary life is not a new gig. Zamyatin used it in WE, back in the Soviet Union of the 1920s and the Polish physician and author Stanislaw Lem did it in Communist Poland. It gives people a chance to think and talk openly about social problems, anxieties, and ideas, while at the same time providing a certain screen of deniability. The authorities can’t be too heavy handed about repressing discussions of imaginary people set in places that don’t exist, without risk of giving rise to amusement. An authoritarian regime can be many things, but not a laughing stock. Sawyer is back in Canada, working on his next book, which, he says, will be set in a China of the future.
This is the story from the Canadian Broadcasting Company:
Dr. Gerald Groopman of Harvard Medical School is familiar to readers of The New Yorker, since he has published a number of articles there on medical themes and topics. He has recently written a book: How Doctors Think. The title might be added to or modified in ways that come down to:” how doctors think, and how that thinking, or the lack of, or perversions of it can get them and their patients into a lot of trouble.” These vitiations of thinking are said to be due to various biases, many of which are poorly understood by the doctors themselves, but which function nonetheless powerfully during the effort to form a diagnosis. The book is an effort to study systematically the sources of medical error, and to help physicians and students in training to be on their guard against them. I think it would be fair to say that the underlying message is for doctors to be self-sceptical, even when they are pretty sure they have the diagnosis nailed, and always be open to evidence or indications that point somewhere else. Groopman has reservations about Evidence Based Medicine, and urges physicians to do in fact what they were told to do in med school, and that is listen carefully to the patient.
On the other hand, Charles Lambdin writing in e-Skeptic the online newsletter of the Skeptics’ Society is rather hard on Dr. Groopman’s book, asserting that physicians need more, a lot more, mathematical and scientific rigor in their approaches to patients, and a lot less willingness to treat each patient as the rule-prooving exception. His article is called How Doctors Think They Think and is rather dismissive of what he calls Groopman’s reliance on anecodtes related by his colleagues, and rather thin in its consideration of research findings in decision science. Using EBM methods and computer controlled decision aids may not be much to the liking of doctors’, but Lambdin thinks they should swallow their pride and get comfortable with them, as the best way to improve patient outcomes. A lot of attention has been given to the problem of medical errors and the toll these exact from Americans each year. Maybe there are insights here to help reduce the errors and the suffering they cause.
The NewYork Review of Books has a long article/review by Richard Horton, former editor of The Lancet, on the Groopman book at: