Friday, April 30, 2010

The Week In Republican Wingnuttery

Yes, Yes, Yes, Yes. Democrats will lose seats in the mid-term elections, but that is small beer compared to the long-term implication of Republicans collectively losing their minds.

To wit:


*
Trying to outdo Arizona as the most retrograde state, the Republican-dominated Oklahoma legislature overrode a gubernatorial veto
of an abortion measure that forces women to undergo an ultrasound and listen to a detailed description of the fetus before getting an abortion. No exceptions are made for rape and incest victims.

*
Not to be outdone, the Republican-dominated Georgia legislature passed a law allowing people to carry licensed firearms in airports.

*
Republicans in the Minnesota Senate introduced an amendment requiring a two-thirds majority vote by the state legislature to approve federal laws
before they are enacted. The bill asserts that "Minnesotans enjoy inherent, natural, God-given rights."

*
The Republican Party's minority outreach program notched another win when a California congressman advocated deporting the children of illegal immigrants although by law they are U.S. citizens.

*
In Iowa, a Republican congressional hopeful who happens to be a medical doctor advocated micro-chipping illegal aliens to "make sure we know where they are and where they're going."


*
Longtime Republican Senator Bob Bennett of Utah, who has impeccable conservative credentials, is likely to be ousted by a far right-winger because he had the temerity to say positive things about health-care reform. In 2008.

*
After the California Republican Party offered an $8 bounty for each newly registered voter, party hacks set to work convincing people to sign pro-marijuana petitions that actually registered them as Republicans. Hundreds were duped.


Ah-friggin-hem.

Cartoon du Jour

Michael Ramirez/Investors Business Daily

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Why Boycotting Arizona Matters

I am typically not a big fan of economic boycotts. The last one that I participated in was Cesar Chavez's United Farm Workers-led boycott of California lettuce in the mid-1970s, which is kind of ironic since it is Chavez's brothers and sisters who are in the cross hairs of Arizona's new minted bill legislating a police state apparatus to go after anyone not suspected of being a true-blue American.

The UFW boycott worked, while I have little doubt that a boycott of anything having to do with Arizona will be ineffectual even if big players like Mexico, the state's largest trading partner, get and stay on board. Arizona's neo-Nazis, supremacists and nativists have the state's Republican Party by the short and curlies, and there will be no turning back.

But that is not the point, so I will not be flying into Phoenix to see an old friend this summer and making damned sure that I don't buy anything made in Arizona at the stupormarket.

It comes as no surprise that the movers and shakers behind the racial profiling law are as vile as they come. Nor that the state government has the chutzpah to ask Washington to help fund the 15,000 officers tasked with stopping people simply because they have brown skins.

The federal response, of course, should be a polite "fuck you" and a lawsuit, while the law is bound to have one long-term consequence that its knuckle-dragging supporters did not contemplate. Arizona Latinos are overwhelmingly Republican. Now you can make that were. There also is an outside chance of a short-term consequence: The Democrat running against the Republican U.S. Senate nominee -- either incumbent John McCain or wackadoodle challenger J.D. Hayworth -- could squeak by with an upset win.

The people in the cross hairs do indeed include illegal immigrants, some 460,000 in all, but also Latinos whose forebears settled in Arizona long before white man arrived.
How ironic. And sad.
Photograph by Newscom

Cartoon du Jour

Mike Luckovich/Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Beautiful Photograph du Jour

GO TO WORK
By Przemyslaw Kruk

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Book Review: The Magnificently Epic Tale Of 'The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo'

(THIS REVIEW IS PLOT SPOILER FREE)
I can't remember the last time that I reviewed a best selling book. My tastes typically run to the obscure and offbeat, but after blazing through the enormously popular The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo over the weekend, I am moved to declare it the best murder mystery that I have read in years and on par plot-wise -- if not stylistically -- with the best that Poe, Doyle, Hammett, Crofts, Chandler and Christie produced.

More exciting still, Dragon Tattoo is merely the first volume of three books known as The Millennium Trilogy written by Swedish journalist Stieg Larsson (photo, below left). The Girl Who Played With Fire was recently released in the U.S., while The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest will be released on May 25. All told, Larsson's books have sold 27 million copies worldwide.

* * * * *
The hero of Dragon Tattoo is Carl Mikael Blomkvist, a middle-aged financial journalist whose career has hit a rough patch in the form of a lost libel case brought by a powerful and corrupt Swedish corporate oligarch. The upshot is that Blomkvist will have to serve some prison time while Millennium, the magazine that published his investigative piece, is teetering on the brink of financial collapse because the oligarch has persuaded companies to stop advertising in the magazine.

Then, in one of the many plot twists that make Dragon
Tattoo such a page turner, Blomkvist is summoned to Hedeby Island in the Swedish north country by Henrik Vanger, an elderly old-school industrialist who persuades him to undertake an investigation into the mysterious disappearance and presumed murder of his brother's granddaughter, Harriet, nearly four decades earlier when she was 16. In return, Blomkvist will be handsomely compensated and Vanger will bail out Millennium magazine, which is run by the journalist's sometime lover.

Vanger believes that Harriet was murdered by a family member, while Blomkvist's investigation will have to overcome a classic locked-room scenario. This is because on the day that the teenager vanished there was a Vanger family reunion on the island but it was sealed off from the mainland because of a gasoline tanker crash on the only bridge.

Harriet had given Vanger a present of pressed flowers every year since she was eight years old, but on his birthday the year
after she vanished he again got pressed flowers and continued to receive them each year, sent from various parts of the world by Harriet's killer to torment him.

Despite the hostility of members of the Vanger clan who resent Blomkvist's presence on the island, he eventually makes progress on this coldest of cold cases, but not until he reluctantly enlists the help of young Lisbeth Salander, a punk computer hacker and genius with serious authority issues (and a dragon tattoo), do the pieces of the puzzle begin to fall into place.

Salander is a sort of anti-Pippi Longstocking and she and Blomkvist make an unlikely but fascinating duo, a sort of dark Nick and Nora Charles, as they find the shocking answer to what happened to Harriet Vanger.

I won't be giving away too much by noting that the book is called Men Who Hate Women in its original Swedish edition or that the ending of Dragon Tattoo is anti-climactic. Larsson too often resorts to detective novel
clichés, but for this he probably can be forgiven since this was his maiden voyage as a novelist and he would have grown as a writer had he not died of a massive heart attack in 2004 at age 50.

* * * * *
A film version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo was released in Sweden last year and made its U.S. debut in March. The film was directed by Niels Arden and stars Michael Nykvist as Blomkvist and Noomi Rapace (see photo atop this review) as Salander. Film versions of the other two books in Larsson's trilogy will be released later this year.

An Index To Selected Book Reviews

'HOW THE BEATLES DESTROYED ROCK 'N' ROLL' (12/7/09) While the provocative thesis of this book is obvious from its title, fans of the Fab Four will be relieved to known that author Elijah Wald does not make that claim in apocalyptic terms, but rather as a statement of fact in his fascinating chronicle of how one genre superseded another in the incredibly rich tapestry of 20th century American music. LINK

'THE GAMBLE: GENERAL DAVID PETRAEUS AND THE AMERICAN MILITARY ADVENTURE IN IRAQ, 2006-2008' (6/8/09) This is the story of how the U.S. was able to step back from the precipice in Iraq because of the Surge, a radically different strategy that succeeded militarily because of a solitary general who was able to convince the White House and Pentagon that business as usual would inevitably lead to defeat. LINK.
'A PEACE TO END ALL PEACE' (6/1/09) When Barack Obama set out on his historic 2009 trip to the Muslim Middle East he visited a region whose borders were carved up by the World War I victors with no thought given to ethnic, religious or historic concerns -- a nonsensical crazy quilt of national borders that resemble those today and continues to have global consequences. LINK.
'UP FROM HISTORY: THE LIFE OF BOOKER T. WASHINGTON': (5/11/09) A welcome corrective for a man whose legacy our changing attitudes about civil rights have distorted. Washington's efforts to sustain black morale at the nadir of their post-Emancipation struggle has to be counted among the most heroic efforts in American history. LINK.
'HITLER'S EMPIRE': HE WAS GOOD AT WAR BUT LOUSY AT GOVERNING (4/13/09) Those detail-obsessed Nazis gave little thought to governance, let alone a long-term vision for their immense empire. LINK.
THE MAN WHO UNLOCKED THE MYSTERIES OF CHINA'S MIDDLE KINGDOM (10/12/08) Chinese claims that they were responsible for hundreds of mankind's most familiar inventions -- including explosives, printing, the compass, hydraulics, ceramics, suspension bridges and even toilet paper -- were long viewed with skepticism by Westerners who were smugly certain that these ancient people were incapable of such advanced innovations. That was until Noel Joseph Terence Montgomery Needham came along. LINK.
'THE OPEN ROAD: THE GLOBAL JOURNEY OF THE FOURTEENTH DALAI LAMA' (9/17/08) Tibet is a land rich not just in history, but also in irony. "The Roof of the World" holds a special place in the popular imagination because of the movie Shangri-La and other gauzy Hollywood treatments, as well as one individual, the Dalai Lama. But those celluloid depictions are fawningly unrealistic, while the Dalai Lama is typically reduced to a caricature. LINK.
'TWILIGHT AT MONTICELLO' & JEFFERSON'S PARADOXICAL VIEWS ON SLAVERY' (6/27/08) Befitting the life of the great man himself, his Monticello seems much larger on the inside. It also is full of hidden passageways, secret chambers and other surprises. Indeed, if you like your dead presidents simple, then Jefferson is not your man. LINK.
PYNCHON'S 'MASON & DIXON,' AN 18th CENTURY MUSING ON ALL THINGS (5/18/08) A pun-filled send up on the clockwork-like machinations of and metaphysical musings on the universe disguised as an 18th century novel. Or at least I think it is. LINK.
A BAKER'S DOZEN: BEST BOOKS ON VIETNAM (5/3/08) Must reads for any serious student of the Vietnam War, ranging from a Bernard Fall classic published on the eve of the disastrous American build-up to the definitive Pentagon history of the war to a book on the secret bombing campaign in Cambodia to three fictional accounts. LINK.
OLIVER SACKS' 'MUSICOPHILIA' (3/30/08) It is a testament to the complexity of the brain that despite decades of research we still have relatively little understanding of why many of us enjoy music so deeply. LINK.
'LEGACY OF ASHES' (1/11/08) Although it may not be the best metaphor, if the Central Intelligence Agency had been a baseball team over the last 60 years, its record would be something like 5 wins and 95 loses in big games. Yes, the CIA has been that bad. LINK.

Cartoon du Jour

Signe Wilkinson/Philadelphia Daily News

Beautiful Photograph du Jour

TUNNEL
By Lukje

Monday, April 26, 2010

'Captain Al' Hubbard: An Appreciation

The benefits of hallucinogens as healing tools are much in the news these days. Captain Al Hubbard could have told you that 60 years ago. This post was originally published in October 2009.

Alfred "Captain Al" Hubbard led a life that didn't just border on the surreal, it was surreal. He was a onetime shyster inventor and brilliant if uneducated scientist. He was considered a demigod by some and a lunatic by others, and had innumerable brushes with the law. He was virtually unknown in his lifetime and remains so today although he was one of the most influential individuals in determining the course of American culture and innovation in the second half of the 20th century.

This is because it was Hubbard and not author Ken Kesey and psychologist Timothy Leary who first introduced LSD to America.

The up-and-coming hackers in the computer world of the late 1950s believed that computers had enormous potential beyond processing bank checks and other mundane tasks, but they were divided into two camps. The mechanists were engineers interested in artificial intelligence; that is, building computers that could mimic the human mind, while the holy grail of the engineers who were humanists was developing small computers that would expand the mind. Among Hubbard's adherents were key members of the latter group, and they succeeded in their goal through the sheer force of their personalities, brilliance and ingenuity, as well as the insights they gleaned from using LSD.

In fact, these men, numbering about 30 in all, were to invent virtually all of the key components of the personal computer or laptop on which you are reading this post, from microswitches to microprocessors to multimedia, as well as the mouse you probably are using, and even ARPAnet, the precursor to the World Wide Web that has brought you and I together for these few minutes.

Ironically, the humanists who rode the first wave of the psychedelic movement received much of their funding from the Pentagon and NASA, branches of a federal government that in a few short years would attempt to crush that movement.

It also is ironic that most of the innovations in computing that we take for granted today came not from the then dominant players like IBM, Burroughs, Electronic Data and Texas Instruments, where engineers were discouraged from thinking big about going small, but from start-ups in what would become known as Silicon Valley. These included Adobe, Cisco, Intel, and of course Apple, fledgling companies where engineers believed that not even the sky was the limit.

* * * * *
The story of Al Hubbard's life is full of holes, contradictions and cul de sacs, as well as unverifiable claims that he worked with the Manhattan Project as a black-market uranium supplier and in a CIA mind-control program called MK-ULTRA as a psychotherapist. This short, stocky man with buzz-cut hair, a warm smile and twinkling eyes was known as "Cappy" by his friends and lived much of his life in the shadows by choice. One would never guess from what is known about his early years that he would become known as the "Johnny Appleseed of LSD."

Hubbard was born in 1901 in Kentucky, but little is known about his childhood. Although he had no scientific training, at age 18 he invented the Hubbard Energy Transformer. This radioactive battery-powered device could not be explained by the technology of the day. This is because it was not the perpetual motion machine that he claimed it to be and hadn't actually propelled a ship around Portico Bay in Seattle nonstop for three days, as press accounts claimed.

A Pittsburgh company bought 50 percent rights to the patent for $75,000, but nothing more was heard of the device.

Hubbard's next job was as a taxi driver in Seattle during Prohibition. The pay was lousy, but he made a bundle off of an ingenious sideline -- a sophisticated ship-to-shore communications system hidden in the trunk of his cab that he used to steer rum runners past the U.S. and Canadian coast guards. He was eventually arrested by the FBI and went to prison for 18 months.

What Hubbard did during the 1930s remains a mystery, but during World War II scouts for Allen Dulles, director of the Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner of the CIA, were attracted to him because of his knowledge of electronic communications. As an OSS captain, Hubbard became involved in a scheme to ship heavy armaments from San Diego to Canada for transhipment to England, but when the possibly illegal operation became the subject of a Congressional investigation, he moved to Vancouver in British Columbia and became a Canadian citizen to escape indictment.

It was there that Hubbard founded a charter boat company, later became scientific director of a uranium mining company and later still owner of several uranium businesses. By age 50, he had realized his dream of becoming a millionaire, owned a fleet of aircraft, a 100-foot yacht and an island off of Vancouver. But he was miserable.

"Al was desperately searching for meaning in his life," according to a friend quoted by Todd Brendan Fahey in an essay on Hubbard. The friend claimed that an angel appeared to Hubbard during a hike and "told Al that something tremendously important to the future of mankind would be coming soon, and that he could play a role in it if he wanted to.

"But he hadn't the faintest clue what he was supposed to be looking for."

That important something became evident in 1951 when Hubbard stumbled across an article in a scientific quarterly about the behavior of rats who were given LSD. Hubbard tracked down the person who had done the experiment, obtained some LSD from him and became a true believer after his first trip.

* * * * *
It is claimed that Hubbard gave LSD to 6,000 people beginning in the early 1950s until it was outlawed in 1967.

That is unverifiable, but it is known that among the people who tripped on his acid were Bill Wilson, the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, who experimented with the drug as a way to cure alcoholism, Aldous Huxley, the celebrated writer, parapsychologist and advocate of psychedelics, and actors Cary Grant, James Coburn and Jack Nicholson, novelist Anaïs Nin and filmmaker Stanley Kubrick, among other celebrities who were turned on by Beverly Hills psychiatrists supplied by Hubbard.

But it is Hubbard's connection to those Silicon Valley whiz kids that we are focusing on here, and that brings us to Myron Stolaroff.

Stolaroff was an assistant to the president for long-range planning at Ampex Corporation, which was a leading maker of magnetic reel-to-reel tape recorders and an incubator for pioneering engineers. Like Hubbard a few years earlier, Stolaroff felt that there was no spiritual center to his life.

It was through an acquaintance that Stolaroff learned of a new drug called LSD and an unusual man from Canada who was administering the substance to Huxley and others. Stolaroff was skeptical, but then one day in 1956 he looked up from his desk at Ampex to see Hubbard standing in the doorway.

Several weeks later, Stolaroff took 66 micrograms (a moderately heavy dose) of LSD-25 in Hubbard's Vancouver apartment that had been manufactured by Sandoz, the Swiss firm where Albert Hoffman had stumbled upon the drug's psychoactive properties in 1943.

Stolaroff found his first trip to be a deeply religious event that took him far into his own unconscious mind and he returned to California an LSD zealot. Among the first people he turned on were engineers from Ampex and Hewlitt-Packard, and in the next few years the circle widened to include those 30 or so engineers, who included Apple co-founder Steve Jobs.

Jobs has been circumspect about his use of LSD. But John Markoff, author of the fascinating What the Dormouse Said: How the Sixties Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry, recalls interviewing the notoriously prickly engineer-executive back in 2001 on the day that Apple had introduced its now ubiquitous iTunes media player.

Jobs was in an especially bad mood, Markoff writes, but at the end of the interview he turned to a Mac and brought up onto the screen what is now known as the Classic iTunes view, a visualization feature that conjures up dancing color patterns that pulse in concert with the beats of the music.

"It reminds me of my youth," Jobs said with a slight smile.

* * * * *
Hubbard left behind his uranium empire and for the next decade traveled the world as a sort of psychedelic missionary.

"Al's dream was to open up a worldwide chain of clinics as training grounds for other LSD researchers," recalls Stolaroff. His first stop was at Sandoz where he purchased a gram (roughly 10,000 doses) of Delysid, the company's brand name for LSD-25, and began shipping it around the world.

In 1957, Captain Hubbard became Doctor Hubbard after he procured a PhD in biopsychology from a diploma mill. He set up a wing at Hollywood Hospital in New Westminster, British Columbia for the study of psychedelic therapy for alcoholics, and obtained the first Investigational New Drug permit from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Hubbard left Hollywood after a dispute with the hospital director but landed on his feet when he was hired by the Stanford Research Institute of Stanford University, where has was assigned to the Alternative Futures Project, and later with the International Foundation for Advanced Study, Stolaroff's project for research into the uses of LSD.

Beginning in 1961, four years or so before LSD would percolate up the peninsula to San Francisco, the foundation supervised about 350 trips. Among the travelers were Stewart Brand, the author and founder of the influential countercultural Whole Earth Catalog.

Some of Hubbard's ideas were far out, and included the grandiose idea that if he could provide a psychedelic experience to the executives of Fortune 500 companies, he would change the whole of society. In one such effort, he persuaded a ranking Ampex executive to make his the first psychedelic corporation.

But as Jay Stevens writes in the edifying Storming Heaven: LSD and the American Dream, that things did not go well:

"Although Myron Stolaroff had laid the groundwork perfectly, persuading Ampex's new general manager to overlook Al's flaws and give LSD a chance, the result was disastrous. The general manager was Jewish. The last thing he wanted to do was to look at pictures of Jesus Christ, but that's what Hubbard kept waving at him."

Captain Al nevertheless recognized the potential psychic dangers of LSD as well as its benefits and he believed that acid should be administered and monitored by trained professionals.

Despite the amazing story of the Silicon Valley whiz kids, there is some question about whether LSD indeed enhances creativity. That was the case even before its widespread use and one reason that Hubbard was seen as a charlatan by some of the people he encountered. Indeed, the debate continues today over whether any chemical substances can do that.

John Markoff writes in What the Dormouse Said that Kary Mullis, winner of the 1993 Nobel Prize in chemistry for the polymerase chain reaction, which he said came to him on one of his numerous LSD trips, is one of the few scientists to have explored the effect of psychedelic drug use.

"Possibly the question is so cloudy because the psychic costs are potentially high," writes Markoff. "Despite intriguing evidence of positive effects in the first years of LSD experimentation, there were also incidents of psychotic outcomes as well."

Hubbard refused the temptation to become a psychedelic philosopher king like Timothy Leary, who along with the possibly LSD-related suicide of Diane Linkletter, the daughter of media celebrity Art Linkletter, probably did more to prompt the feds to outlaw LSD than anyone else.

A Drug Control Amendment signed by President Johnson in 1967 declared LSD a Schedule I substance and even possession was a felony punishable by 15 years in prison.

The FDA ordered the confiscation of all psychedelic stocks at laboratories and institutions, including Stolaroff's foundation, and legend has it that Hubbard buried most of his own stash in Death Valley, California. Only five researchers eventually were permitted to continue their research, none of them associated with Hubbard and none using human subjects.

In 1968, his finances in ruin, Hubbard was forced to sell his island for a pittance and in 1974 the Stanford Research Institute canceled his contract.

Hubbard's later efforts to get another Investigational New Drug Contract from the FDA failed although he had two decades of clinical documentation. His own health failing because of an enlarged heart, he went into semiretirement.

"He knew his work was done," said a friend.

On August 31, 1982, Al Hubbard took his last trip, departing this mortal coil from the trailer park where he lived in Casa Grande, Arizona.

PHOTOGRAPHS (From top to bottom): Ken Kesey; Timothy Leary; Early personal computer; ARPANet laboratory; Bill Wilson; Aldous Huxley; Stewart Brand; Myron Stolaroff; Steve Jobs; Diane Linkletter; Death Valley; Hubbard at home of Silicon Valley friend.

Cartoon du Jour

Pat Oliphant/Universal Press Syndicate

Science Sunday:

VIDEO STILL OF PANSY'S FAMILY MOURNING HER DEATH
There have been a rash of reports and scientific studies of late asserting that chimpanzees and their brethren react to death very much like humans. That is ass backwards: The fact of the matter is that humans react to death very much like chimpanzees and their brethren.

This brings us to the story of Pansy, a 50-year-old chimp who died peacefully in December 2008 on an island in Blair Drummond Safari Park in Scotland. At her side were three other chimps -- daughter Rosie, another adult female called Blossom, and Blossom’s son Chippie.

Their reaction to her passing was recorded by the park’s cameras and, as scientists would put it, many of their actions seem remarkably human. The others seemed to care for Pansy in her final minutes, examine her body for signs of life, and avoid the place where she died. Rosie even conducted the equivalent of an all-night vigil.

Then there is the story of the deaths of five chimps in forests of Bossou, Guinea in 2003 amidst a respiratory epidemic.

Two of the chimps were babies, Jimato and Veve, and their mothers, Jire and Vuavua, carried their babies' lifeless bodies around for 68 and 19 days respectively. They groomed the dead youngsters and chased away the flies that circled them, and even after the babies had completely mummified into dry, leathery husks, the mothers still carried them, and other groups members investigated them.


Rosie, meanwhile, stayed with her mother’s body throughout the night, on a platform that she had never previously slept on. All the three surviving chimps slept restlessly and the next morning, they were all subdued. They removed straw from Pansy’s body, ate less than normal, and watched silently as the keepers took Pansy away. When they were allowed to return to the sleeping area, Blossom and Rosie did so hesistantly, but Chippy refused. His alarm calls drew the other two back to the day area, where the trio spent the night. For the following week, none of the chimps nested on the platform where Pansy died, even though all of them had frequently done so before.

Legendary primate researcher Frans de Waal says, “I have seen chimpanzees die in captive colonies, sometimes unexpectedly and sometimes after a long illness, and the reactions described here correspond with my experiences. There is even a dramatic photograph that reached cyberspace.”

The tale of the African chimps, told by Dora Biro from the University of Oxford, differs in its details but has many parallels. Vuavua paid such care to her dead baby that by the time she abandoned him, his body was largely intact albeit mummified. Jire did the same, although she carried Jimato along for so long that his facial features were largely unrecognisable. Did Jire and Vuavua know that their babies were dead? It’s hard to say. Certainly, they seemed to treat the corpses like live babies, at least for a few days. Towards the end, they started carrying them in positions that they never use for healthy youngsters.

Other chimps touched, poked and sniffed the bodies, and lifted their immobile limbs. Some of the other youngsters even carried them in bouts of play. Even though the bodies’ were starting to deform and smell intensely, only one of the chimps ever reacted in a way that looked like repulsion (see video below). Biro never saw a single act of aggression.

How chimpanzees deal with death and dying

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On the 7th of December, 2008, in the heart of Scotland, a chimpanzee called Pansy died peacefully. She was over 50 years old and lived on an island in Blair Drummond Safari Park with three other chimps – her daughter Rosie, another adult female called Blossom, and Blossom’s son Chippie.

Their reaction to her passing was recorded by the park’s cameras (see video above) and many of their actions seem remarkably human. The others seemed to care for Pansy in her final minutes, examine her body for signs of life, and avoid the place where she died. Rosie even conducted the equivalent of an all-night vigil.

This footage provides a rare glimpse into how one of our closest relatives deal with death, and it’s one of two such examples that have been published today. The second took place several thousand miles away in the forests of Bossou, Guinea. In 2003, a respiratory epidemic killed five of the local chimps, including two babies called Jimato and Veve.

Their mothers, Jire and Vuavua, carried their babies’ lifeless bodies around for 68 and 19 days respectively. They groomed the dead youngsters and chased away the flies that circled them (see image and video below). Even after both babies had completely mummified into dry, leathery husk, the mothers still carried them, and other groups members investigated them.

These examples of quiet, calm behaviour are incredibly different from previous anecdotes. At Gombe National Park in Tanzania, the death of a male who fell from a tree was greeted by an eruption of noise. The others made alarm calls and aggressive displays, and they touched and held each other. They stared and sniffed at the corpse, but no one touched it and after four hours, the group left.

Elsewhere, in the Tai Forest, a leopard fatally mauled a young female and the same mass excitement ensued. This time, the others frequently touched the body and some males even dragged it for short distances before abandoning it. And in other cases, chimps have been shown to attack or even cannibalise the corpses of dead infants, despite the protestations of their mothers.

In stark contrast, Pansy’s peers were calm and restrained. When studying animal behaviour, it is always important to avoid the trap of anthropomorphism, but one cannot help but draw comparisons between Rosie, Blossom and Chippie’s actions and the responses of humans to peaceful death.

Pansy’s final hours were documented by Alasdair Gillies, head keeper at Blair Drummond. She started becoming lethargic in November and started receiving veterinary care. Her fellow chimps seemed to know that something was up. Instead, of sleeping on their usual platforms, they nested near her. At 4pm on December 7th, she started breathing erratically and laboriously and Gillies let the others join her.

They groomed her with unusual frequency in the 10 minutes before her death and afterwards, they seemed to test for life by inspecting her mouth and lifting her limbs. More unusually, Chippie attacked Pansy’s corpse on no less than three occasions (see video below); Gillies thinks that he may have been trying to rouse her or expressing frustration or anger. Blossom groomed her son for an extraordinary amount of time, perhaps an act of consolation or social support.

Rosie, meanwhile, stayed with her mother’s body throughout the night, on a platform that se had never previously slept on. All the three surviving chimps slept restlessly and the next morning, they were all subdued. They removed straw from Pansy’s body, ate less than normal, and watched silently as the keepers took Pansy away. When they were allowed to return to the sleeping area, Blossom and Rosie did so hesistantly, but Chippy refused. His alarm calls drew the other two back to the day area, where the trio spent the night. For the following week, none of the chimps nested on the platform where Pansy died, even though all of them had frequently done so before.

Legendary primate researcher Frans de Waal says, “I have seen chimpanzees die in captive colonies, sometimes unexpectedly and sometimes after a long illness, and the reactions described here correspond with my experiences. There is even a dramatic photograph that reached cyberspace.”

The tale of the African chimps, told by Dora Biro from the University of Oxford, differs in its details but has many parallels. Vuavua paid such care to her dead baby that by the time she abandoned him, his body was largely intact albeit mummified. Jire did the same, although she carried Jimato along for so long that his facial features were largely unrecognisable. Did Jire and Vuavua know that their babies were dead? It’s hard to say. Certainly, they seemed to treat the corpses like live babies, at least for a few days. Towards the end, they started carrying them in positions that they never use for healthy youngsters.

Other chimps touched, poked and sniffed the bodies, and lifted their immobile limbs. Some of the other youngsters even carried them in bouts of play. Even though the bodies’ were starting to deform and smell intensely, only one of the chimps ever reacted in a way that looked like repulsion (see video below). Biro never saw a single act of aggression.

This is hardly the first time that a chimp mother has been seen carrying the mummified corpse of her baby; the first such sighting was made in 1992 and was very similar to the latest ones. De Waal says, “The carrying of dead infants by chimpanzee mothers is well known, and has also been reported for other primates, although never of such long duration. 68 days is longer than any previous report that I have seen!” He says that ape physiology drives an enormous attachment between mother and infant, that doesn’t rapidly shut down when the infant dies. For example, a chimp’s reproductive cycle grinds to a halt for four years after giving birth.

“It would also not be adaptive to abandon an infant every time it gets sick,” says de Waal. “The best option is for mothers to keep hope and keep caring. A rapid shutting down of attachment would be maladaptive: it might lead mothers of near-dead infants to abandon them prematurely.” Why did Jire and Vuavua eventually let go? As their reproductive cycle restarted and all the associated hormonal changes kicked in, the mums could have been psychologically prepped to raise another generation. The fact that Jire carried her dead child for longer than Vuavua may be because she had already had 7 previous children, while Vuavua was a first-time mother.

Both of these examples suggest that chimpanzees have a better awareness of death and dying that people have previously thought. In many ways, this shouldn’t be surprising – these animals are self-aware and empathetic towards each other. Another intellgent animal, the African elephant, also shows remarkably sophisticated behaviour on the death of their peers. De Waal says, “I don’t think this is the same as what elephants do, which visit burial sites long after the death of a companion. But I wouldn’t be surprised if elephants also showed reactions like these (minus the aggressive displays, which seem typically chimp) to the actual death of another.”

Do chimps truly understand the concept of death? Based on the stories of Pansy, Jire and Vuavua, de Waal says, “Definitely, they seem to recognize the death of another, and perhaps realize that this is a permanent change, and a permanent loss. This by itself is already very significant, and reports like these help us understand the depth of their understanding.” But he also adds that we can’t draw any conclusions about whether they understand their own mortality. “To understand one’s own mortality would require extrapolating from what happens to others to one’s own situation. We cannot rule this out, of course, but it would require another big mental jump and for the moment we have no way of knowing if species other than us have made this jump.”

In the meantime, James Anderson, who led the Scottish study, says that the work could affect the way that elderly chimps in zoos and research facilities are cared for. It might, for example, be more humane to let the old-timers die naturally, surrounded by peers and familiar surroundings, than to resort to isolated treatment or euthanasia.


Historic Photograph du Jour

CENTURY BOWLING ALLEY
(Huntington, Long Island, N.Y. -- 1959)

By Gottscho-Schleisner

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Science Sunday: Of Phernomes, Hormones & Moans In The Night

Scientists are hard at work belaboring the obvious: We live longer and lead more productive lives when we're in good relationships. I do not begrudge their belaboring. Indeed, it's kind of nice scientifically quantifying the benefits of a stable relationship based on love and the companionship it provides. Oh yes, and that sex thing. But unlocking the mysteries of love is a fool's mission in that scientists will never fully understand what makes us tick no matter how hard they try.

I was long lucky in lust, but that love thing eluded me until some 13 years ago today when a long-time friend and I hit the linoleum one night. Figuratively speaking, we haven't gotten back on our feet since.

This obviously wasn't love at first sight but rather . . . uh, positive vibrations accumulated over decades of occasional phone calls, postcards sent from ports of call on our respective travels, conversations in the presence of mutual friends, and for me on one particular evening the loin-stirring sight of her coming through a doorway, her lower torso and legs silhouetted under a diaphanous ankle-length skirt back lit by a setting sun.

Most scientists, however, would poo poo our long journey to love. A big part of the explanation, they say, is simple: We smelled right to each other.

Those smells can attract us in powerful ways, and we're talking less Chanel No. 5 and Calvin Klein Eternity for Men than the more subtle aromas that emanate from the mouth, skin, scalp and other places that will be left to the imagination since this is a family blog.

The way that a potential partner looks and sounds is, of course, also important.

Scientists tell us that men view a woman's body as an indicator of their ability to bear and nurse children while women see a broad chest and shoulders as a sign that a man can keep food on the table. Testosterone is very big player in either case.

Well, we're past even thinking about having kids, although I will admit to having the requisite food-providing bod if you overlook my paunch. I'm not a big breast guy, but boy am I into shoulders, and my mate's are magnificent. Then there are the aforementioned torso and legs.

My mate's voice is somewhat deep, which is to say seductive, with a hint of the antipodes, while mine starts deep and goes deeper as the situation warrants, further signs of that testosterone thingie.


This brings us to kissing, MHC and the previously alluded to linoleum floor.

MHC is a bunch of genes known as the major histocompatibility complex, which most commonly influences tissue rejection but was on board when we took that first kiss. And since we liked that first kiss, a second deeper kiss and then much more as MHC pulled our tactile trip wires and we became aroused.

So how did we figure out that we were in love and not merely lust? Because our brains told us so in what scientists have found is a three-step process.

In the first step, our ventral tegmentals got on board. These are a tissue mass in the brain's lower regions where dopamine is made. Dopamine, it turns out, regulates reward and results in the thrill we feel when we do something really neat, get a big raise or feel ecstatic -- like when we fall in love.

Well, as many of us know, that falling-in-love feeling fades with time, but in the second step our brains' nucleus accumbens, a few floors above the ventral tegamental, pump out not just dopamine but also serotonin and oxytocin, the latter being the cerebral tie that binds. New mothers are awash in oxytocin during labor and when they nurse, forming an unbreakable bond with their babies.

The third step emanates from the caudate nuclei, a pair of wee structures on either side of the head where the patterns that help run our lives -- like knowing how to drive a car or use a computer mouse -- are stored for safekeeping. Same for parlaying that first kiss into falling in love and then committing to a permanent love.

Not all love is permanent, of course, and it figures that scientists believe that falling out of love also have neural and chemical components.


All this talk of testosterone, MHC and ugly lumps in the noggin kind of demystifies, which is to say unromancifies, love. But methinks that no matter how hard scientists try, they will never completely unlock all of the mysteries of love.
IMAGES (From top): "The Promenade" (1917-18) by Marc Chagall; "Romeo and Juliet (1884) by Frank Dicksee; "Tristan and Isolde (1911) by John William Waterhouse; "The Fainting of Layla and Majnum (ca. 1550), artist unknown;"Orpheus and Eurydice" (1922) by Charles de Sousy Ricketts; Porgy and Bess.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

The Week In Republican Wingnuttery

Will this be the week that political scientists look back on in particular when they study the Great Republican Implosion of 2010?

The GOP has parlayed its humiliating 2008 loss of the White House and Congress
into not an effort to broaden its base to include more than aging Caucasian males who put their teeth in a bedside water glass before turning in, but instead has tacked relentlessly to the ideologically "pure" right. Still, the last few days have been a doozy:

* In Florida, party purists all but completed the job of throwing Governor Charlie Crist under the bus, pretty much guaranteeing that the moderate Republican will run as an independent and as such will stand an excellent chance of beating
the knuckle dragging Marco Rubio and Kendrick Meek, the eponymously uninspiring Democratic challenger.

* In Arizona, the Republican governor is poised to sign a harsh anti-immigration law passed by the Republican-controlled legislature that gives the term "police state" new meaning. Oh, and Barack Obama will have to prove that he is an American citizen before his name can be placed on the state's 2012 presidential ballot.

*
In Nevada, right-wing Republican Susan Lowden, who is challenging Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, became the subject of untold chicken jokes after she declared that patients should be able to barter doctors' services. One wag calculated that the U.S. would be 443 billion chickens short if they replaced cash, credit cards and insurance for doctors' office visits.


* Presidential wannabe Newt Gingrich, who passes for the party's intellectual heavyweight these days, predicted that the Tea Party will become "the militant wing" of the GOP. Where's the Newtster been? It already is.

* Wingnut den mother Sarah Palin further burnished her credentials by ridiculing Obama for having no experience in negotiating a nuclear weapons reduction treaty with Russia when it turns out that the prez met or spoke with his Russian counterpart sixteen times to personally negotiate details of the pact.

* Jim DeMint, the South Carolina senator and arguably the nuttiest of the Capitol Hill wingnuts, became the latest Republican extremist to contemplate a presidential run.

*
Party Chairman Michael Steele, reeling from yet another scandal involving the misuse of donor contributions, opined in a rare moment of candor that Republicans haven't given blacks any reason for vote for them. For the last 40 years.

* Finally, it was revealed that some 20 Fox News "personalities" have endorsed, raised money, or campaigned for Republican candidates or causes, or against Democratic candidates or causes, in more than 300 instances and in at least 49 states.

I can't wait to see what happens next. Can you?