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Sunday, January 31, 2016

Bow and the Missouri Conservationist

Bow loves leafing through magazines. Usually, he does not seem to be reading them intently, but he likes to look at the pictures. For instance, just last week he got a new issue of Harper's Bazaar and enjoyed looking at all the new fashion choices.

But last Wednesday a friend of his, who comes by and brings him bananas every week, brought him a few issues of the Missouri Conservationist, and that is a completely different kind of magazine.

Bow can be very boisterous and exuberant, and sometimes when is in the midst of a dominance display, this can seem very uncivilized to humans who observe him. But Bow also has his quiet, focused moments. He took a lot of time with these magazines, and he was very gentle with them. He would pause for moments at a time, looking at a page and thinking about it.

Some of the headings of these articles use letters in  large typeface, and they feature very familiar-looking words.

What do you suppose Bow was thinking to himself when he came across this heading: BOW FISHING ? Did he think it was about him? He stared at the man in the picture for a long time.

Or how about this easy-to-read caption: BIRDS ARE AWESOME.

I don't use words like "awesome" very much, but Bow is familiar with them, because the interns who volunteered with Bow used to pepper their speech with that word. "It's awesome that he used his words with a stranger!" Sara can be overheard saying to Allie in one of our earlier Project Bow DVDs. So Bow is familiar with these words, and this may be writing at just the right level of simplicity to capture his attention on the page.

Bow can read, but that does not mean that he will sit down and read a book cover to cover or even a page in a magazine in proper sequence. On the other hand, he recognizes words and phrases very easily. The Missouri Conservationist is full of beautiful images of many plants and animals. Bow took it all in, but he paused the longest on the images of human beings accompanied by familiar words.

The picture above, of boys and girls shooting at targets using bows and arrows, had him pause for much longer than any other image. He likes people. He likes children. And he likes  the word "bow"!

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Braving the Snow

It has been a very mild winter so far. But yesterday and today school has been canceled due to snow. It is a very small amount of snow, mind you. Just a very thin coating on the ground. Nevertheless, yesterday morning Bow was cautious and decided to stay in.

He helped me to continue proofing the new book,

After lunch, I took a very short walk to the mailbox to pick up the mail.

When I returned, Bow told me that he wanted to go outside. I was quite surprised, but I complied with his request.

Bow was not going to get his feet wet, snow or no snow. So he had me temporarily hold the door shut, and then he gingerly climbed from the dry stoop to the bench, without touching the floor of the outer pen. But that does not mean he does not like snow. He sampled the snow accumulated on top of the crossbeam support, and he found it was good.

Brownie just grumbled a little and walked away, but Leo started barking, hoping Bow would play chase. But Bow would not be goaded this time. He stayed calm. No way was he getting his feet wet! He was staying put on the bench.

Leo could bark all he wanted, but there was no response from Bow.

Of course, Bow did not stay there long. He came in to warm up in short order. This morning, after breakfast, Bow asked to go out again. But when he felt how cold it was, he did not venture out. He came back and asked for his blanket, instead. It's not a bad life.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Bow Shows Empathy

Yesterday, at dinner time, Somebody was very sad. It was not me. It was not Bow. But it was Somebody who had tears streaming down her face. And Bow, who usually starts his dinner conversation with "Give me X", spelled instead סליחה.

Now, you probably want to know what that means. But at this point, I am having trouble deciding how to translate this one Hebrew word. The word itself means "pardon" or "forgiveness", but Bow usually uses it to apologize, and then I always translate it as "I'm sorry."

English "I'm sorry" implies regret, and hence it can be used for both an apology and as an expression of sympathy over another person's pain and suffering. The Hebrew apology is a straightforward request for forgiveness. 

I believe the Hebrew standard apology is better, because it accepts culpability, whereas the English one kind of blurs the line, and we can never tell if someone is saying "I'm sorry you got hurt, and I'm sorry I am the one who hurt you" -- or "I'm sorry you got hurt, but it's not my fault."

However, Bow has a very dim sense of culpability, so lots of times his apologies, both verbal and non-verbal, seem to be more about "I'm sorry you are angry. Please stop being angry."

Either way, though Bow's sense of right and wrong does not coincide with mine, he does feel empathy, and that was what he was trying to express with his limited vocabulary. Bow did not have anything to do with the sadness he saw. He did not cause it. But he wanted to express sympathy, and the easiest way was to use his apology word.

After that, he did order a dish of food, but when he sat down to wait for me to give him the food, Bow gestured through the glass to the Sad Person and it was his chimpanzee apology gesture! Of course, it was hard to do through the glass, but he offered up his knuckles to be kissed or bitten through the glass.

He really was trying to say "I'm sorry", but it wasn't an apology at all. The gesture had been grammaticalized to mean "I feel your sorrow!"

Even She smiled a little through her tears when She noticed it. "Is he sad that I'm sad?" --  "Yes."

Does Bow have empathy for others? Definitely. Does he have self-awareness? Yes.

But do I think he needs legal personhood rights? No. Because that's a political question. For more on that, read my post  today in the other blog about the Immutable Soul.
This is an old picture of Bow when sad. I didn't get a photo of what happened yesterday.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Bow and the Touchscreen Today

Yes, Bow does own a touchscreen. It's a computer that is dedicated to him. Nobody else uses it. But Bow does not use it much, either,  This is by his own choice. For years we tried to entice him to use his computer to type out words which would then be sounded out for him. But he didn't want to. On the other hand, whenever he sees that I am using my laptop to watch a video, Bow keeps asking me to bring the laptop in so he can see the video, too.

There are several reasons why the serious attempts to get Bow to use the touchscreen didn't work. One, we were afraid he would destroy it, so we could not leave the computer in with Bow unsupervised. Two, we tried to get him to use chopsticks to point at letters through the grid. Three, we didn't want to have Bow changing the settings on the touchscreen, so we put barriers in the form of plexiglass to keep him from touching anything but the letters we wanted him to touch. Four, with all these limitations in effect, Bow could hardly do anything with the computer. Five, Bow caught on to the idea that using the touchscreen was nothing but work, so he did not choose to do that. If he said "no" to an offer of a touchscreen session, we had to respect that. So "no" it was for a very long time.

But today Bow was bored. We have finished all the electronic editing we could do on "Our Lady of Kaifeng: Courtyard of the Happy Way" and are waiting for the first proof to arrive,  And when I asked Bow what he wanted, he told me תני לי הכל  -- "Give me everything." Well, everything, I figured, includes the touchscreen. So I asked him if he wanted to use the touchscreen. He said yes, and so I brought it in.

The touchscreen does not have a battery, so it has to be connected by  a cord to the electricity, This makes getting it into the pen Bow is in a little awkward, as there are now outlets where Bow is, for obvious safety reasons.

I propped the computer up against the glass window between the two pens for support. Bow got distracted at first by something that was going on outside. Then he turned on not one, but a couple of different video games, and the music was very loud. He proceeded to dance to the music, getting more excited as time went by.

Eventually, he got so excited that he knocked down the computer, but when I reprimanded him, he set it upright again and settled down to try to play the video games.

Unfortunately, neither Bow nor I understood the rules to the video game he was playing, so we did not score any points.  After a while, we switched off the computer.

There has got to be a way to motivate Bow to use the touchscreen more productively. Nothing is going to happen unless he wants it to happen.  He does not want to use the word sounding out program we have for him. But I think he would actually enjoy a language-based game better than whatever it was he was trying to play.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Koko's Commercial and the State of Ape Language Research

Yesterday, on my twitter feed, there was much ado about Koko the Gorilla's appearance in a commercial about climate change sponsored by the French conservation organization, NOE. Among the primatologists, there was now a move to distance themselves from this public service announcement, not because they disagreed with the message, but because they believed the messenger did not actually mean what she said, and that quite possibly she was coached to say it, and that her words were elicited in other ways, then edited together to make it seem she said something other than what she actually said. Here is the Huffington Post article that deals with the reactions of primatologists.

Now, to tell you he truth, this video of Koko had appeared in my Facebook feed before, and I was sure it was a hoax. Sickened by the message and by the appropriation of Koko's persona, I had no idea this was the real Koko. I thought it was somebody pretending to be Koko.

But now that it has been confirmed that it was the real Koko, I went back and watched the video. And when he saw me watching it, Bow insisted that he wanted to see it, too.

I tend to agree, from watching the video, that there is no way to tell whether Koko actually said this, and I think it makes sense to take it with a grain of salt, as we take all Public Service Announcements. I mean, if we see a famous child  actress on a PSA tell us to not be a fool and to stay in school, do we assume those are her real words? Do we think she thought of that rhyme all by herself? Do we think she personally agrees with the message? Or do we think: Hey, she probably got paid to say that. After all, she is an actress.

A performance by an actress in a commercial or in a play, movie or TV show does not indicate what she actually thinks. It also, believe it or not, does not prove that she has mastered human syntax. The words were written for her by somebody else. If she flubs a line, they do another take.

Why are these established  primatologists bending over backwards to distance themselves from a PSA with a gorilla delivering the message? Is it because they are worried that people will confuse a commercial with real life? Or is it because they think that the Gorilla Foundation should not allow Koko to work for a living? Or is it because of the bizarre "personhood" controversy that has arisen around apes who can use human language?

Here are some things to keep in mind:

  • Mastering syntax does not guarantee intelligence. Many people with a low IQ have mastered syntax.
  • Intelligence itself does not guarantee that someone is able to give legal consent, which requires not only an understanding of the words in a contract, but also an ability to deal with long term consequences of entering into an agreement.
  • Neither syntax nor a high IQ imply the emotional maturity to lead an independent life in human society. Many very smart people who speak their native language perfectly require a legal guardian.
  • Impulse control is an issue for many, including humans and other apes. An inability to control impulses can require confinement away from others, even when the individual is intelligent, articulate and otherwise emotionally mature.
At present, we give personhood rights just based on being human to many who cannot live free among us, and they receive government support. Whether this is the correct thing to do or not is a political question. Whether we want to extend such rights to other apes who would need the same level of support is also a political question. It is not simply a matter of proving the many intellectual achievements of speaking apes.

I think it is a good idea to separate politics from science as much as possible. When we see the president crying on TV, we take that with a grain of salt, knowing he is a politician, and somebody probably wrote his speech, and he gets paid to say that. We should do the same when a working ape is trying to earn a living by appearing on a commercial.

Should animals other than humans be allowed to work for a living? Definitely. Is there anything wrong with an ape appearing in a commercial? In my opinion, no, there is not. But let's not get all distracted by the acting to the point where we take the rehearsed words seriously or forget that the author of the words and the one aping those words are not the same person. 

This in no way takes away from spontaneous linguistic output of the same apes when they are not acting. If we want to know whether the president has mastered syntax, we need to catch him in a spontaneous language stream and not try to determine this while he is giving a public speech.

That so many primatologists confuse the question of linguistic competence with other issues is a problem for ape language studies. It does not matter whether Koko cares about climate change in order to assess her language skills. And it's not in the context of a political commercial that we want to evaluate her linguistic competence -- or anyone else's. 

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Nature, Society and Individuals

Sometimes, the most beautiful scenes don't have any people in them.

This is the view from my front door, as it appeared last night around sunset. Nothing man-made can top that. People can make things ugly.  Not that I think man is essentially fallen. What I actually think is that most individuals are good, but they behave differently once they are in large social groups.  That's why committees composed of nice people can behave like tyrants. You never know what they might do, just based on knowing them as individuals.

The video above is of Bow grooming me and watching part of a book trailer I made. We often privilege relationships over and above individuals, and that's essentially what favoring the needs of society means.That's what the book trailer is about.

 If we could somehow separate people from the social ties that influence them, I think they would behave very differently. A pack of dogs acts in ways that each dog on his own would not. Many incidents of mauling involve dogs acting as a pack. A mob of humans is not all that different from a pack of dogs. Give them authority and power, and they can do a lot of damage.

Take the BLM. They are no conservationists.

They sell off public lands for fracking, plan to euthanize wild tortoises and ship wild horses to be slaughtered in Mexico. Private landowners would not behave that way, but the public has been taught to think the opposite. I bet that it's not because the BLM is manned by black-hearted individuals, so much as that mob rule is what happens when you give people power over things they do not own. Each of those bureaucrats alone, if he owned some of that land, would behave in a very different way toward the wildlife. But because they do not own it,  they feel no personal responsibility toward the land and no real stewardship.

I am not a landscape-loving kind of person. I actually prefer portraits myself. But when I feel that the landscape belongs to me, it makes a difference. I start to see how beautiful it is. Ownership does that. I can only hope that more people come into ownership of large, lonely plots of land, so they can see the light, too.

Monday, January 4, 2016

Bow in the New Year

It's a new year. Yesterday, I finally took down the Christmas tree. I asked Bow if he knew it was not Christmas anymore. He spelled: כן שמעתי "Yes, I heard," I asked him if he knew what it was now. He spelled סתם, which has no direct English translation, but in this context means "Nothing special." It's not any particular holiday. It's nothing. It's just an ordinary day.

On New Year's Eve day, I saw a whole herd of deer on my land, more of them together than I have ever seen.

I used Home on the Range as the background music for the video above. I think it's beautiful. This song, written in the 1870s, is the unofficial anthem of the American West. You can hear in the words of the song that ranchers have always enjoyed the beauty of nature and the pleasure of watching the wildlife. In the fight to develop the land, it was farmers against ranchers. The ranchers were the conservationists, relatively speaking. Of course, the Native Americans were even better at conservation.  But today, it is no longer ranchers against farmers or ranchers against Native Americans. Today, it is the United States government against ranchers.

Have you heard of the standoff at the Malheur Wildlife Preserve in Oregon? Here is some background information:

Many people who are interested in wildlife conservation are on the side of the government, mistakenly believing that he ranchers want to develop the Federal land or to sell it off and harm the wildlife. But continuing to allow the ranchers to graze there is better for the wildlife than what Federal agents are doing.

Prescribed fires are a common method that Native Americans and ranchers have used in the area to increase the health & productivity of the land for many centuries.
Conservationists and conservatives should have common interests, as the etymology of the two words implies. Both want to conserve resources and the old fashioned way of life that allows humans and other animals to live side by side.

Fish & Wildlife are the same arm of the Federal government that sends American money to Africa while outlawing chimpanzee travel inside the US. They are not the good guys. And if we are going to conserve our way of life, we need to stand together, even when the issue might be ranching, and we are not ranchers.

The best chance for wildlife conservation is in keeping the ranchers there. They are better for the wildlife than any alternative.

By the 1990’s the Hammonds were one of the very few ranchers that still owned private property adjacent to the refuge. Susie Hammond in an effort to make sense of what was going on began compiling fact about the refuge. In a hidden public record she found a study that was done by the FWS in 1975. The study showed that the “no use” policies of the FWS on the refuge were causing the wildlife to leave the refuge and move to private property. The study showed that the private property adjacent to the Malheur Wildlife Refuge produced 4 times more ducks and geese than the refuge did. It also showed that the migrating birds were 13 times more likely to land on private property than on the refuge. When Susie brought this to the attention of the FWS and refuge personnel, her and her family became the subjects of a long train of abuses and corruptions.
I hope that we can find a way to open people's eyes to the wildlife-related issues that are involved in this conflict. Too many people are angry at the ranchers because they own more land than the average citizen. That makes them sound rich, and people have been  conditioned to despise those who have more.  But it's people who own more land who tend to conserve more resources. It's those of us who live all crowded together who pose more of a threat to the wildlife.