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Friday, November 28, 2014

A Fine Feast

Bow loves Thanksgiving, and he knows when it is coming. He sees the guests arriving, and he sees the culinary preparations, and he knows. This year we had Grandma and Bow's cousin, as well as my daughter and myself and Bow, which is plenty of a crowd for the inner pen.

While my mother worked in the kitchen, and the cousins played video games, Bow watched me set up the long serving table and pile it with the desserts and the extra stuffing.

Though Bow and I like pumpkin pie, by popular demand we only had cheesecake and poppy seed cake this year.

Though Bow was interested in the table and the food already on it, he was aware that all the important action was going on in the house, and he often gestured at the door to the living room to draw my attention.

My mother did a great job with the turkey and all the fixings. In no time at all, Bow was enjoying a drumstick of his own.

And he really enjoyed the sparkling cranberry juice!

 Down to the last drop!

These days, Bow is not as endearing to the guests, in terms of polite chit-chat. He is just concerned with keeping things on schedule, including each course of the meal, and even the cleanup. He enforces his own bedtime, too!

It was a very fine feast and a happy Thanksgiving Day for all.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Communicating about Crumbs

This morning, we ran out of the cereal that Bow and I usually have for breakfast. When I went to pour Bow out a bowl of Oatmeal Squares,after he asked for cereal, there were none left. So I went for the Special K that came in a variety pack, one of those small personal-sized boxes.

Bow didn't like it. He played with his cereal, but most of it remained uneaten. When something like that happens, there's nothing to do about it, but just clear away the full bowl. I can't force Bow to eat it. I don't encourage discarding uneaten food, and had he asked for something else, after wasting the cereal, he would not have gotten it, but Bow did not seem hungry, so he just let me clear without making further demands.

Later on, he asked to go outside. It is still cold out, but not as cold as before, so I agreed. I unlocked the door that leads to the hall that leads to the airlock that leads to the outer pen. Bow went into the hall, and I was following, when I felt something with my bare foot. I looked down, and I noticed there were a few flakes of Special K Cereal on the floor.

"What's this here?" I asked, in a kind of annoyed tone of voice.

Bow came back in from the hall, saw the flakes, picked them one by one off the floor and discarded them in the empty potty. I didn't tell him to do that, and I was a little surprised.

"Okay, then." I said, and we proceeded down the hall to the outside.

The trash can on my side of the inner pen this morning after breakfast

We don't have a trash can on Bow's side of the inner pen, because  he's likely to knock it over during a display. We only have the potty, and it took years of work to get him not to knock that over. But Bow understands what trash is, where it goes, and that I get annoyed by crumbs on the floor. So while I didn't tell him to help clean up, he figured out on his own what would make me pleased enough to proceed with our journey to the outside.

Bow did not stay outside long because it is cold
Is that language use? Yes and no. Bow didn't just understand what I said, which was a question about what it was that I felt with my foot on the floor. He also understood how I felt about it, that it was  very likely to ruin the possibility of my cooperating with him about going outside, and he understood what he needed to do to fix it. That's more than many an autistic human child would be able to get out of what little I said.

Bow has great insight into human nature, but he still is not trustworthy

Please, don't misunderstand. I am proud of Bow, of his obvious intelligence and his great ability to cooperate creatively with me, but this does not mean that I would trust him enough to leave the door to the outer world unlocked. Bow is Bow. He's cunning, crafty and has his own ideas, that do not always coincide with mine. There's a reason the door from the inner pen does not lead directly to the outer pen. Bow can dance circles around me and around Project Bow volunteers, and I designed it this way to prevent him from doing just that. People get very disoriented by how fast chimpanzees can be. We are slow pokes compared to them, and communicating and cooperating requires them to slow themselves down to our level.

Bow can outsmart me, so I have to stay on my toes

Many people treat chimpanzees as if they were disadvantaged and slightly backward human beings. Sometimes well meaning friends post a meme attributed to Jane Goodall that says chimpanzees are just like us except they don't have language, so we should be nice to them. I don't know if she really said that, but it's wrong. Chimpanzees do have language. Observers so far have not been able to decode it in the wild, because they are so much faster than we are. Just because a fieldworker does not understand the grammar the natives use does not prove that they have no grammar.

But I also disagree with the other part of the meme: that we should be "nice" to chimpanzees. I mean, I disagree with the condescending tone of that statement. Chimpanzees are not underprivileged minorities that we should make charitable donations to and pat on the head and give special privileged status to on account of their supposed disabilities. We should study them, get to know them, respect them and find ways to work cooperatively with them. But we should never underestimate their intelligence, their agility or their strength. Because just like us, they have ideas of their own, and not all their ideas are nicey-nice.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Watching the Snow Melt

It snowed on Sunday. Not a very big snow, but enough to give the ground a bit of white cover.

In the outer pen, the bench was covered with snow.

The next day, there was still snow on the ground, but people went about their business. The school bus came by for my daughter. The sun came out from the clouds.

All this while, Bow did not ask to go outside. He was content in the warmth of the inner pen.

Today as I went for my walk in the pasture, I noticed that most of the snow had already melted.

There was more of it left in the shade and less in the sunlight. When I got back from my walk, Bow asked to go outside.

It was still pretty cold out, and Brownie complained, but Bow was undaunted. He laid himself down on the rim of the bench and surveyed the yard.

He stayed there a good twenty minutes before he asked to go back in.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Playing with Socks

I hate socks. They make me uncomfortable and sweaty, and I seldom wear them. But when it's really cold, and I am going for a walk outside, there is some advantage to heavy socks within my boots. Yesterday Bow saw me come back from my walk, take off my boots and remain in socks. He got very excited, and he beckoned me to approach, so he could examine my socks. Did I mention that he loves to see anything we wear on our feet?

Bow likes to take off my socks, one by one, then put one on, while using the other as a ball.

He did this several times yesterday.

Now, before you ask why I don't just give Bow a pair of socks of his own, I can tell you that he will not keep the socks on for long. For Bow, this is a fun game, but it would be torture to have to keep the socks on for any length of time. He feels the same way about clothes. He likes clothes, even likes trying them on, but they won't stay on for long.

When Bow was little he wore clothes, but as soon as he was big enough to make the decision for himself, he chose to do without. Bow remembers those days. We sometimes look at old pictures together.

Growing up means separating and individuating and choosing what to keep and what to discard from the traditions of your childhood.  In this, Bow is no different from anyone else.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Cold Weather Raccoon and News about Bow's Calendar

It's so cold out today that water actually freezes. I have seen it with my own eyes. Bow is staying indoors, engaged in proofing and other more scholarly activities.

 Yesterday, while Lawrence was with Bow, I saw a raccoon in the middle of my internal road and stopped to take a picture.

From a distance, I thought maybe it was a cat, but then I realized it could not be, because of its gait. It has hands rather than paws, and that shows by the way it walks. Then I thought, it's a monkey. But that couldn't be right.

For a moment it paused and looked at me, and it seemed very confused about how to classify me, too. But then it decided it was not staying for a closer look.

By the time I was close enough to get a really good view, the only thing left to see was the tail.

Raccoons are nocturnal. What brought this one out in the daytime? Could it have been confused about the end of Daylight Saving Time? Or was it the unexpected cold that brought it out?

In other news, the proof of Bow's calendar arrived in yesterday's mail.

 After extensive proofing, Bow discovered a typo.

The place where Bow's birthday was marked had the word "Birthday" spelled as "Nirthday". Now why couldn't I see that online?

 It looks as if they made Bow's birthday a National Holiday for 2015. Should I keep the "President's Day" label under the birthday cake, or should I just write: "Bow's Birthday: National Holiday"?

Back to the drawing board for us. I'll have to correct it and order another proof. Hope you haven't ordered your calendar yet!

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Understanding and Choices

One of the questions that people often ask is: do you tell Bow what to do or is that just what he chooses to do? For instance, when he is eating oatmeal, did I tell him to use the spoon?

No, I didn't tell him to use the spoon. I provided the spoon, and I told him to eat "nice". What does that mean? Mostly it means, don't make a mess. Be considerate of the fact that I have to clean up after you. But it does not mean you have to use Emily Post etiquette. It's the way I was raised. I didn't have to be perfect in my decorum, but I understood that I should not cause others more work than was necessary.

Everything with Bow is give and take. He does not always do exactly what I ask of him, but he takes reasonable suggestions under consideration. 

In trying to help me think of ways that I might prove what Bow knows, a colleague recently asked me if Bow would respond well to being rewarded for answering a question. We tried that more than once. He intentionally gave the wrong answer, every single time. It was not a random thing. It was better than chance! He was being obstructive because he resented the test,

So what was the reward we offered? It was chocolate. And he loves chocolate and does not get it all the time. But he wants to be given it as a treat, not a reward. He will do all sorts of nice and surprisingly considerate things, but not for a reward.

Bow is well fed. He has more than enough to eat. Yes, he does tell us what he wants to eat and when he is full. But he is not talking to us for a reward, and he would stop talking altogether, if he thought we were playing some kind of manipulative trick on him in our language use.

Well, why don't we just stop feeding him? He would probably be more cooperative then. Some people have suggested that. 

I would never do that. Withholding food is not ethical. It's wrong. And it would destroy the relationship of trust that I have built up with Bow. So all our language use remains in context. And as long as it's in context, then it's not a double blind test and will not pass muster for scientific purposes.

Well, how about if he were holding the hand of someone who did not speak his language? Then what he wrote would have to be coming from him, right? Remember, he only holds the hands of people he trusts. But, yes, something like that did happen once. The intern's name was Katie Thurston, And Bow did not entirely trust her, because she had a British accent. And he played a trick on her, by using a pun in Hebrew, and then just a spelled out Hebrew word, before he agreed to tell her in English that he was full. 

In Hebrew, the number seven is spelled שבע. But that is also how you spell the word for sated, meaning full.  He was being very tricky when he pointed at the 7, and of course Katie did not know what he meant. The next thing Bow spelled after the  7 to let Katie know he was full was מלא, which literally means full. But she did not know that Hebrew word.  Then, when she did not understand that, he spelled "because I am full," in answer to her question about why he did not want to eat.

Above is the transcript of that exchange.  It is not replicable, meaning that we can't get Bow to do that over and over again on command. It was something that he chose to do at the time, and like all real language use, it was a once in a lifetime exchange. You can't tell him: "Say that again." He won't.

Does Bow understand what we say to him? Yes. Does he obey commands? No, but he sometimes follows suggestions, when he himself decides it is a good idea. In all those cases, there is nothing context-free about it.

Real language use never is context free. It's a matter of give and take, a little cooperation and a little bargaining and making do with less than perfect results. 

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Neighbor Dog

It's nice to be snug as a bug in a rug at home, and to be able to contemplate the inside of one's mouth -- to think inward thoughts.

Bow has the luxury of doing just that for as long as he likes. But he also likes to go outside and brave the elements.

Yesterday morning, it was windy and cold and it looked as if a storm was approaching.

We seemed on the verge of a storm.

Every direction you looked, it looked as if something big was about to happen in the sky.

Bow went inside and then went out again, and as a way to keep warm, he displayed.

Leo obliged Bow by engaging him, while Brownie remained aloof.

But there was no storm. Things settled down. In the afternoon, as I was going for my regular walk, I spotted a dog going into my pasture, entering from the road into the bushy underbrush. I decided to pretend that I did not see that, because the last thing I wanted was a confrontation about neighbor dogs on my property. Maybe if I ignored the dog, the dog would ignore me.

But he didn't ignore me. He came right up and greeted me as if we were old friends, and for a moment I was disoriented, and I thought he looked just like my old dog Osiris, who was born near Harrison, Arkansas and whose photo is always on my mantel. He died before I went to grad school.

Bow looks at a photo of Osiris

But then I realized it was just Cowboy. the neighbor dog. And Cowboy wanted to join me in my walk. I didn't invite him, but when he saw that I was going for a walk on my mowed path, he decided he would lead the way.

Just to be certain he didn't lose me, Cowboy kept turning back to make sure I was still on the path.

What I found most interesting was the way he stuck to the path, when he could easily have gone exploring in the underbrush. If you did not know any better, you might have been convinced that he had been trained not to leave the well-trodden path. However, that was not the case. When we parted ways, he went to explore the brambles and the narrow footways the deer and rabbits and coyotes had made among the trees and bushes. It was just that as long as we were keeping company, he understood that I would not stray from the path, so neither did he.

If we were in an American city, Cowboy, with no apparent collar or tags, would be considered a stray. But since we are living in the country, people know who he is and where he lives, and since he does not cause any harm, he is tolerated. Even I tolerate him, because he does not go near the fence to tease my dogs, the way some latchkey dogs have been known to do when their masters are away.

Should dogs be allowed to roam? It's a question that I've thought about before. In Taiwan, even in the cities, there are stray dogs who are well behaved and well fed, even though they are not owned.

The Strays of Tamsui

Feral dogs, people will warn you, can form packs and attack livestock, other dogs and even people. I know this, not just because I have been told, but because I have seen it out here with my own eyes, before there was even a "shelter" in this county. Dogs got shot when they broke the rules.

I don't let my own dogs roam, just as I would never allow Bow to go out under the present conditions. I am a very cautious person. But I can't help but feel that when we get used to a certain context, such a society that is intolerant of stray dogs and stray children and homeless people, we are moving one step closer to our own imprisonment and that of our children.

Stray dogs and stray children used to be the hallmark of every human city, and while their presence was sometimes an eyesore and a nuisance, I would rather see them roam free than all get institutionalized and/or adopted. I would rather see dogs adopting humans than humans adopting dogs. Brownie, for instance, chose us.

Cowboy reminded me yesterday that a dog out on his own can be well behaved and trustworthy, and that it takes a certain type of community to allow us to see that this, too, is a possibility.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Misconceptions about Food and Eating

I saw a stunning picture  yesterday on Frans de Waal's public Facebook page. ( As it is not my photo, I will not show it here, but you have only to follow the link.) It was a golden eagle in mid-flight, with a knife in its left claw. A photographer had been cutting up meat to lure the eagle, but the eagle ignored the meat and took the knife instead. Smart eagle!

You can download the entire article here: On the Origins of Language: Humans, Non-humans and the Transmission of Information
This reminded me of a review article I wrote once about a book on the evolution of language out of pre-language. One of the articles in that book had made the claim that as soon as food was placed before an animal, the animal could not help eating it. It was supposed to some kind of unthinking reflex!

Tell that to a squirrel!

That is demonstrably not true. I gave a long list of counterexamples in my article, from many different families in the animal world.

And now we have the additional example of the golden eagle who preferred a knife over meat. And no, I don't think that particular eagle was a vegetarian! He just preferred the tool to the product of its use.

Bow enjoys the finer things in life on Thanksgiving
Why are there so many bizarre claims about food and eating when it comes to attempts to delimit humans from other animals as some kind of special case? And why are there so many other misconceptions about food? I can't tell you, for instance, how many animal rights advocates try to convert people to vegetarianism. "You like chimpanzees," they will say, "so you should become a vegetarian." Why? Chimpanzees are not vegetarian. Why should I be? What is wrong with these people and their reasoning faculty?

Humans are no better than other animals in our need for food, our willingness to kill to get it, or our preying on others. But are we also no worse. We are, after all, just another species. We all like to eat. It is a universal that we share. But we won't eat just anything. We are choosy, unless our choices are severely curtailed. We like fine foods and presentations matters.  And when we get a chance to use utensils manufactured by others, we often do.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Unplanned Persimmons

Bow examines the persimmons he is eating

When I first moved here in 2001, there were no persimmon trees on the property. I owned five acres of pasture, and another five acres that were lawn, orchard and woods and where the house stood. But I let the pasture go, stopped mowing it, and in thirteen years time it has grown all sorts of trees and bushes and vegetation that was not there before. A friend once asked me: "How do you grow trees on your land?" The answer: "Just stop mowing." That's it. That's all it takes.

The trees just kind of sneak up on you, when you're not looking. You don't watch them rising up from saplings, because the grass is too high to see that. You  don't  cry over each one that dies, because you never even knew it was there. You only see the ones who made it, long after their roots are securely fixed deep in the ground. 

I noticed my first persimmon tree around Halloween a year or two ago. It was completely bare, except for this round orange fruit that reminded me of pumpkins. It was a little spooky to see a tree all decked out like that, when all the others were in mourning or near-death hibernation. I called it my Halloween tree.

You're not supposed to pick the fruit until after the first good frost, otherwise it will be too bitter to eat.

No matter how beautiful and smooth it looks, you have to wait until the skin has been shriveled by the frost to pick it. Some of the persimmons burst as they fall to the ground when you shake the tree. Be sure to wash them before presenting them to the chimpanzee in your life.

Presentation is everything. I use Blue Willow China
Bow loves persimmons.

He eats them very daintily. 

He is not sure he wants to eat the skin and definitely won't swallow any of the seeds.

But he loves the sweet stuff that is in the middle, and he will go to a lot of trouble to eat it all.

It's nice to have free fruit that you neither planted nor watered. It's like getting a bonus you never expected.

After Bow finishes, I have a bowl full of seeds, which I throw outside in the yard, to fall where they may. Most will never find fertile ground and will not become new trees. Nature is wasteful that way.  But that's how paradise works. That's why we have so many persimmons to eat free of charge. One out of many sprouts from the ground, and no one can know which one it will be! Isn't that better than planning?