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Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Disciplinary Issues versus Self-Expression

This week Lawrence will be away on Wednesday, so he came on Monday instead. That was yesterday. Lawrence kept the computer on and available to Bow through the grid throughout the day, but the transcript is mostly blanks, with one possible contribution by Bow for the whole day: the single letter "E".

I can't force Bow to type. Neither can Lawrence. We have to wait for him to want to.

Some people are not convinced. They notice that Bow is potty trained, and there are rules for his behavior with people,  and there are rules about not wasting food, so they don't understand why I can't make him write in a way that demonstrates consistently that he is literate, if indeed he is literate.

"Obviously, the potty training was important to you," one person said to me once, "so you worked hard at it. If getting him to cooperate on testing were equally important to you, you might have gotten him trained to do that."

There is a certain amount of truth to this. If my goal were to have him type preset responses to preset questions perhaps I would have achieved that goal, as many others have working with non-humans and developmentally delayed humans. That was never my goal. My goal was for him to have language, and I believe the goal has been achieved.

My policy in raising Bow was similar to the way I was raised in early childhood. Nobody forced me to talk.  That came naturally. Nobody made me answer questions they already knew the answers to. I wasn't punished or rewarded for my linguistic achievements. Language is its own reward.

On the other hand, I was disciplined, but discipline was about what not to do: don't pee on the floor, don't walk and eat, don't make a mess and expect someone else to clean it up. I mean, I did make messes and other people did clean them up, but as soon as it was practically possible for me to minimize the amount of work others had to do to clean up after me, I was expected to cooperate in this regard, and there were consequences if I didn't.

Non-negotiable demands that I make on Bow are disciplinary. Don't bite people. Don't pee on the floor. Don't waste food. I enforce these rules because they make our living together possible. Bow isn't independent yet, and it makes sense that to the extent that he can, he help to make it easier for those who take care of his needs to do so with the greatest of ease.

Every once in a while, Bow tries to get around one of the rules. This morning, he left about three half eaten grapes on his plate and asked for cereal. I said: "Bow, finish the grapes."

He wouldn't, and, of course. I couldn't make him, so I just refused to serve him the cereal until he did eat them. I also explained the reason for the rule: "You've ruined those grapes for anyone else. No one is going to want to eat them. That's wasteful."

Did he understand? It doesn't really matter. He saw that I was not going to serve the cereal until he finished the grapes, so eventually he did finish them. And he got the cereal. And then he asked for a peach, and he got the peach. So everything turned out okay, and Bow did not starve, and yet the rule about not wasting food stood.

But how could I insist that he type something, if I didn't actually tell him what to type? And if I told I told him what to type, in what way would that be language? Wouldn't it be more like a dictation class?

Of course, he was spelling out words the whole time he was asking for food, but not on the computer. Why don't I just take down the letters from the glass and make the computer the only way to communicate? In my case, I have a good excuse: we would lose Hebrew. But what about Lawrence? Why don't we take the English letters off the glass and just leave Bow with the computer for talking? I asked Lawrence about that once, and he thought it was a bad idea.

Why? Because Lawrence comes once a week and has to wait for Bow to let him into his good graces. Because the current communication system works so well, and there is going to be a lot of frustration and anger on Bow's part if we deny him the security of holding our hands. But most of all, because we hope that Bow will want to use the computer in the same way that he wants to spell with us, so that he will use it as a mode of self-expression and not as a system of tasks and rewards.

This afternoon, Bow asked to go outside. I agreed, and I opened the door for him, but he changed his mind and would not go out. When I asked him why, he replied:

סתם חם שם

That means "It's just hot there." But it was an odd sounding phrase because all three words rhymed. A moment after spelling this, Bow added:


"Rhyme." He was making a comment on the linguistic form of his earlier utterance.

This is the kind of thing that distinguishes rote training from spontaneous language use. I want Bow to do it on the computer, too. I just don't think I can force him.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Bow Reads Newsweek

Yesterday, I spent a big part of the day getting a manuscript ready to upload to CreateSpace, including doing the calculations for the exact dimensions of the book cover, based on the number of pages in the interior. This is my least favorite part of the publishing process. But it did feel good to know that after many hours of fiddling with those files, they had been accepted for review, and I could now take a breather. I would not hear back from Createspace for another 48 hours.

Bow was lounging around with his army shirt and not demanding any attention, so I decided to relax by picking up a copy of Newsweek that was in my pile of mail. I sat down on the other side of the door, with my back to Bow, and started reading an article about how the internet was rewiring our brains and driving us crazy.

After a while, I noticed that Bow was on the other side of the grated door, looking over my shoulder and reading the article, too. Well, okay, maybe he wasn't reading the article. Maybe he was just looking at the pictures. But the point was, he was very quiet and concentrating on the copy of Newsweek that I had in my hand.

I decided that if he found it that interesting, I might as well share.

Bow has handled many magazines over the years, and he has always found the pictures interesting, but he usually proceeded very quickly from looking to mouthing to tearing apart. Yesterday, it was not like that. He was patient, he seemed to be concentrating for long periods of time before shifting his gaze to a different part of the page, and he felt no desire to destroy.
Is the internet rewiring our minds and driving us into a frenzy of information seeking? I doubt it. One thing I'm sure of: it hasn't affected Bow this way. He can still relax with an old fashioned magazine and feels no need to constantly check his Facebook Fan Page.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

New Developments in the Text-to-Speech Keyboard

Recently my brother, Nets Hawk Katz, sent me a new keyboard program for Bow to use on his touchscreen computer. He was learning a new programming language called GameMaker and so he used it to create a new program to put on Bow's touchscreen. Nets has made the different versions of the program available for download on his site. The source code is also available in case you are interested in modifying the program yourself, but to do so you would need to get GameMaker.

The first version of the program that Nets sent me was keyboard1.exe. I downloaded the program, installed it on Bow's computer, and then I said to Bow: "Uncle Nets has sent you a new program to use on your computer. Would you like to try it?"

Bow did not answer the question directly. Instead he spelled: "Uncle Nets is good."

I took this as a positive response, and I let Bow play with the program. Here is some footage of that:
This was on July 8. Though Bow was pleased to be able to play with the program, his use of it was not especially productive. I was not able to open it for him in full screen, so it was a small window superimposed on the desktop. Bow could close the window and open other programs, and this disrupted any communicative use of the program. He had fun playing with his computer, but it was not being used as intended. Other issues were that the delay between writing and then hearing what was written pronounced seemed too long.

Nets then sent us the next version of the program: Keyboard2.exe. The delay was changed, noises were made every time a key was pressed and a transcript file was added. Nets wrote: "The keyboard writes a transcript in a file transcript.txt in the same directory where you place the executable. (This transcript contains blank lines every time the timer runs out when nothing has been written.) You don't have to remove the transcript file every time you use the keyboard. The program simply appends additional lines to the end. "

I went and installed the new version of the program as soon as I received it, but Bow did not want to try it because it was late afternoon and nearly dinner time, and after dinner he was too content and exhausted to do anything more than lie around and chew his cud. Here is some footage of me playing with second version of the keyboard, without Bow:

Nets told me I was confusing "maximize" with "full screen." I would normally get full screen by pressing F4, but that was hard to do with a touchscreen and no keyboard. I had a keyboard I could attach, but it was not in the pen. There is also a virtual keyboard as part of the operating system of the touchscreen, but I had trouble finding it. Before I found another way to resolve this issue, Nets had already written another version of the keyboard to take care of it: Keyboard3.exe. It allows for an irrevocable full screen option. Once in full screen, no way back out, other than closing the window.

Here is some footage of our use of Keyboard3.

Under Keyboard3, here are some things that Bow typed:




Arguably, the last one could have been a reference to Nets, as his name is spelled NZ in Hebrew. But that might be stretching things. Bow did not seem to be using the keyboard to communicate. He was just playing. 

The keyboard is for English words. Bow and I do not speak English with each other. Hebrew text to speech is very complicated, so this keyboard is meant to be used by Bow to communicate with English speakers, such as Lawrence. By the time Lawrence came over on Wednesday to spend the day with Bow, Nets had created a new version of the keyboard: Keyboard4.exe. There was no more x for closing the window. 

I was going to leave Bow and Lawrence with the keyboard, and I was hoping that any interactions would be recorded on the transcript, but I also went out and got a cheap camera from Wal*Mart for Lawrence to film Bow using the keyboard. The transcript shows everything that is typed, but it does not show who typed it. So I wanted footage of Bow typing and a transcript to show what he typed.

However, at the end of the day, Lawrence reported that Bow would not type anything when he, Lawrence, was in the room. But when Lawrence went to empty the potty, Bow took the opportunity to use the keyboard.

This morning I looked at the transcript. Here is what I found from yesterday:









I'm pretty sure most of that was written by Lawrence. Was any part of it by Bow? I have to find a better protocol in order to distinguish what each contributed to the text. There's no video footage, because Lawrence was charging the new camera most of the day. Pretty inconclusive...

Meanwhile, now that I have a new camera, I tried taking some still shots of Bow.

This is Bow's evening face from last night, when he was chewing his cud after dinner. Here is a shot of Bow outside this morning:

Friday, July 6, 2012

Absolute versus Relative Happiness

Now that  A Thousand and One Stories of Pericón de Cádiz has been published, Bow and I are free to pursue other projects. We also have been allowing ourselves more time just to savor the moment and enjoy life. Are we happy? Mostly. Could it get even better? Probably.

 The issue of happiness brings out different philosophies. Some say that happiness is a state of mind, and that we are responsible for our own happiness, because we could just choose to be happy no matter what the circumstances. I don't belong to that school of thought. I believe our feelings are spontaneous responses to the circumstances, and that it's a good thing that we are unhappy when something bad happens to us, because how else will we change a situation, if we have nothing to spur us on to action?

We are responsible for our actions. If we are unhappy but do nothing about it, then our continued unhappiness may very well be our fault. But it's good that we are not capable of being ecstatically happy under less than optimal conditions. Can you imagine how helpful it would be to tyrants if every citizen could simply choose to be happy, no matter what others did to him? Some of these ideas are touched upon in my novel, Vacuum County. Verity does not "adjust well" to being a prisoner, and her unhappiness is what enables her to eventually find a way  to fight the tyranny she has been subjected to.

What about Bow? Is he happy? Most of the time, I think he is. But is he absolutely, one hundred percent ecstatic every moment of the day? Hardly. Do you know anybody who is? Other than drugged zombies, I don't think anybody can be consistently happy  every moment of the day. If they tell you that they are, I would be highly suspicious.

The other day, someone left a comment on my Youtube channel asking: "Is Bow is as happy in his current life as an average chimp of his same age who lives in the wild ? Why or why not ?"

I replied: "Is any person qualified to make absolute statements about another person's happiness? Or relative statements about the happiness of one person in one situation as opposed to another, in another situation? Bow is happy. He enjoys his life very much. This is not to say that it could not be even better with chimpanzee companions. I'm sure it would be, but we're still working on that. Let me ask: Are you as happy in industrialized society as an aboriginal human in the wild? Hard to say, right?" The person came back today with this comment:
"No, it's not at all hard for me to say that, IMO, I'm NOT as happy as an aboriginal human in the wild.And yes, there ARE people qualified to objectively assess a person's -- or an animal's -- level of well-being, based on observable physical and behavioral indications.
The point of my question was merely to get your objective assessment of Bow's well-being without any defensiveness, but it failed."

Even if we ignore for a moment the sudden slippage in terminology from "happiness" to  "well-being", I find the tenor and purport of the statement to be strange. Is this person so certain that a primitive lifestyle would bring him more happiness? If so, why not pursue it?

My response, rather than being defensive, had been open and vulnerable. I've often wondered what it would be like to live as a hunter-gatherer, and while I recognize that there are many things about that lifestyle that are more suitable to humans than the one most of us live under, I also know that my ancestors dropped that lifestyle many, many generations ago, and that I would in all likelihood have succumbed to infant mortality if I had been exposed to the hardships of that life.

But there is more to my doubt than that. Even if I were sufficiently fit to survive, would I enjoy a life  like that? As a woman, would I accept my assigned role? Would I like not having a choice?

And, of course, if you start to think about it from the point of view of someone who never had a choice, you see that the question is kind of moot. How could we ever compare the happiness of one person to that of another? If we become the other person, wouldn't it be impossible to remember what it had been like to be us? I can't even tell if the neighbors are as happy as I am. I cannot say if I would have been happier if I had been living their lives all these years.

For someone to be certain about someone else's emotional state implies that this person is either omniscient, or that he is so arrogant that he cannot imagine the variables involved.

Well, what about Bow? I could just ask him: "Hey, Bow, are you happy? Would you be happier under different conditions? Would you rather live in the wild?" But we probably would not get a straight answer. And even if he did answer honestly, how would he know?

I can tell you this: a few years ago, when Bow was about eight, he once got very mad at me and said: "I don't like you. I'm going to Africa."

I felt a little hurt, but I ignored the part about not liking me and asked instead: "Why are you going to Africa?"

"Because you won't give me chocolate," he spelled.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Working Mothers and Commitment

In a way, I am now a working mother of two, and my work isn't taking care of Bow and Sword, although I am there for them all day long. My work is editing and publishing books. This summer's extended project is to correct all errors in   A Thousand and One Stories of Pericón de Cádiz and to prepare it for publication. 

What this means is that I have to stop my work on the book every time one of my kids needs me, but they also have to understand that they cannot be the focus of my attention at all times, and that unless they really need something, I should be allowed to get some work done. It also means that I show the work to my children and allow them to participate in the process, to the extent that it interests them. I do not, however, push them to be involved beyond their level of natural interest.
This way of care-taking and working at the same time is not the norm today, but it had to have been the norm in the past. Gathering food or making a living had to be something that mothers did while they were mothers. Having a baby did not exempt females from working, and working did not exempt them from taking care of their babies

The recent tragedy at the Jane Goodall sponsored "Chimp Eden" has gotten me to thinking about this issue again: why it is so important to have a committed relationship with a chimpanzee, if you hope to be allowed to care for one. The exact reason for this particular attack is unclear, but what is clear is that the Jane Goodall Institute and its affiliated sanctuaries discourage the formation of relationships between caretakers and chimpanzees. "Human-animal contact is kept to a minimum at the sanctuary" says the article. Never mind that humans are animals and that if human animal contact were kept at a minimum it would require all humans to be kept in isolation cells, what they are really trying to say is  that chimpanzee human contact is kept at a minimum.

What this means, in effect, is that all the humans agree to remain strangers to the chimpanzees and not to form lasting relationships. This places everyone in the "sanctuary" in danger, because chimpanzees kill strangers. To a chimpanzee, a stranger is an enemy.

At Project Bow, if someone can't form a relationship with Bow, then that person cannot go in with Bow. The pens are so constructed that no one can come in without Bow's permission, but also nobody can be forced in by Bow.

Apartheid is not good. It creates resentment when it is practiced among humans or elsewhere. But the reason it has to be practiced at a large institution like a sanctuary or a zoo has something to do with the employment arrangments in today's corporate world. Most employees feel free to change jobs when it suits them. Most employers feel free to hire new people when it suits them. Most jobs are set up so that individual employees are interchangeable, and anyone can substitute for anyone else, at the drop of a hat. Childcare centers are set up so that infants and toddlers can be cared for by whoever happens to be there that day. Teachers at schools get maternity leave, sick leave and professional training during the school day, and anybody who is "qualified" can substitute while this happens.

The problem for little children as well as chimpanzees is this: people are not interchangeable. If the child or chimp doesn't have a relationship with that person, then the caretaker is not qualified! It's not anybody's fault. It's not about bad caretakers or bad people: a stranger is a stranger, and it takes time and effort to turn him into a family member.

Bow has Lawrence, as well as me. But Lawrence only comes once a week now. Every time Lawrence arrives, Bow makes a terrible display of his strength, and every time, Lawrence concedes that this is Bow's turf, and he, Lawrence will not go in with Bow until Bow decides it's okay. The display can last between two to five minutes, and Lawrence waits patiently until it is over. Then he asks: "Is it okay for me to come in now, Bow?" And Bow always agrees that it is. They then proceed to have a fine time together. But if Bow ever decided it was not okay for Lawrence to go in that day, Lawrence would not go in.

The secret to good chimpanzee human relationships is: it's a relationship. It goes both ways. It has to involve a long term commitment, and it can change over time. You can't take anything for granted. And you should not assume that just because you got the job, you're qualified. Bow decides if you're qualified.

Institutional care is a terrible thing, not because the people who work there are "bad", but because it denies the very ordinary psychological needs that we -- both chimpanzees and humans -- evolved to have filled. Someone who is not a friend is very likely an enemy. Someone who is not part of your tribe is a stranger. Someone who has not been accepted by you is not acceptable.

We may pretend all we like that we love everyone, but it's not true for us, and it's not true for any living creature on earth.