Showing posts with label Steven Pinker. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Steven Pinker. Show all posts

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Pourquoi un certain individu est-il hétéro, et un autre homo ? Ou même bio ?

J'ai abordé brièvement cette question dans un article ici. Et je me rends compte aujourd'hui que je me suis gouré totalement. Un bébé est bel et bien né avec une orientation sexuelle précise : soit hétéro, soit homo. Ce n'est pas parce qu'une maman habille son fils en rose qu'il risque de devenir homo. S'il est né hétéro, les vêtements que sa maman le fait porter ne changera absolument rien à l'affaire. A la rigueur, si la maman faisait porter une robe rose à un jeune enfant né hétéro, celui-ci pourrait bien réagir tôt ou tard : « Qu'est-ce qu'elle est conne, ma mère, de me donner ces vêtements de fille ! »

Alors, comment expliquer qu'un papa et une maman hétéros puissent créer un fils homo ? Ma question est bête... ou, plutôt, c'était moi qui était bête quand j'ai osé poser cette question. Des parents hétéros peuvent très bien avoir un fils congénitalement homo. Un point, c'est tout ! (Qu'on me pardonne d'avoir évoqué cette situation comme s'il s'agissait d'une affliction ! J'ai réellement des progrès à faire...)

Heureusement que le grand psychologue Steven Pinker est beaucoup moins stupide que moi-même.

Cliquez le dessin pour l'agrandir un peu.

Le couple naïf a droite était d'une pureté totale avant de croquer la méchante pomme d'Eden. Ils étaient donc comparables à un bébé, né sans aucune orientation sexuelle, qui finit par manger des pommes qui déterminent son orientation.

Avec davantage d'imagination, les concepteurs du mythe d'Eden auraient pu imaginer des scénarios très différents :

• Adam et Eve étaient tous les deux totalement homosexuels. Ils passaient leur temps à Eden à inventer et faire cuire de délicieuses tartes aux pommes.

• Adam était un hétéro plein de testostérone, tandis qu'Eve n'aimait que les anges de sexe féminin. Eve lançait donc constamment de pommes durs en direction d'Adam, dans l'espoir de lui faire du mal au niveau de son horrible engin, et de le mettre hors d'état de nuire.

Quand je tente de faire le compte, je tombe sur au moins neuf scénarios plausibles. Adam et Eve auraient pu être, chacun à sa guise, soit hétéro, soit homo...  soit parfaitement bio. Eden aurait pu se transformer dans un lieu fabuleux, susceptible de rivaliser avec Las Vegas.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Good books

Britain's New Scientist weekly has just put out a selection of 25 popular science books that "have changed the world" [here].

I would have been a little worried if this list of books had included many works that I did not know. On the contrary, I was thrilled to discover that I had read 15 of their suggested titles, while most of the remaining titles rang a bell (in the sense that I had heard of them, and had a good idea of their themes). The only one of the 25 books that was a total newcomer to me was The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat by Oliver Sacks (1985). Here are those that I've read:

•  A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking (1988)

•  Brighter Than a Thousand Suns by Robert Jungk (1956)

•  Godel, Escher, Bach by Douglas Hofstadter (1979)

•  Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond (1997)

•  On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin (1859)

•  The Ascent of Man by Jacob Bronowski (1973)

•  The First Three Minutes by Steven Weinberg (1977)

•  The Language Instinct by Steven Pinker (1994)

•  The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins (1976)

•  Silent Spring by Rachel Carson (1962)

•  The Double Helix by James Watson (1968)

•  The Emperor's New Mind by Roger Penrose (1989)

•  The Mysterious Universe by James Jeans (1930)

•  The Naked Ape by Desmond Morris (1967)

•  What is Life? By Erwin Schrödinger (1944)

At the top of this list, the "big three" for me would be Dawkins, Watson and Pinker. I would have included a title by David Deutsch... but it's a fact that he remains a bit too recent to have changed the world yet. Maybe "will change the world". The same could be said of Lawrence Krauss.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Reaching my blog

A site meter incorporated in my blog tells me the paths by which users have found Antipodes. Often, I'm greatly amused by the terms that people use in search engines prior to being directed to my blog. Guys searching for soft porn have often been directed to my blog posts here and here... which are not even smutty enough to offend a Catholic archbishop. This morning, I was amused to see that an Indian gentleman, having submitted to Ask the single search term "bigdirtyimage", was led to my quite serious blog post entitled Dirty talk [display], which was basically a pretext enabling me to praise the brilliant handling of sexually-explicit language by the Harvard professor Steven Pinker. My Indian reader was surely disappointed.

The Ask search engine used to be called Ask Jeeves. We all know that Reginald Jeeves was a very correct English valet in the P G Wodehouse novels, and he had subtle answers enabling his master—an upper-class chap named Bertie Wooster—to get out of all sorts of nasty predicaments. Intrigued by the Indian fellow's discovery of my blog, I decided to test the Ask device.

Sure enough, surprisingly, my blog post comes up on the first page of links. More surprisingly still, the very first suggestion from Ask is a nice website with flowery rainbow images of a wallpaper variety.

All I can say is that Jeeves, in spite of his unquestionable skills in answering embarrassing questions, seems to have displayed an amazing dearth of intuition concerning what the Indian gentleman was really looking for when he cried out "bigdirtyimage".

Friday, January 13, 2012

Psychology of a novel kind

I hastened to read Thinking, fast and slow by the Israeli-born Daniel Kahneman after coming upon a description of the Princeton professor by Steven Pinker:

Daniel Kahneman is among the most influential psychologists in history and certainly the most important psychologist alive today. He has a gift for uncovering remarkable features of the human mind.

Another enthusiastic reviewer described Kahneman's book as "a big slice of sober pie". Today, having completed a first reading of the book, I'm intrigued by Pinker's appraisal. Admittedly, Kahneman's book often aroused my curiosity, but many parts of it bored and indeed irritated me. In any case, I remain convinced that if any individual deserved to be thought of as "the most important psychologist alive today" (an excessive description whose fuzziness also troubles me), it would surely be Pinker himself rather than Kahneman. But I prefer to avoid unnecessary evaluations of that kind.

The basic theme of Thinking, fast and slow is trivially simple. When humans are thinking—for example, when they're faced with questions or problems—they actually behave at two complementary levels. First, they "think fast", immediately, automatically and instinctively. Then they "think slow", calling explicitly upon reasoning processes. At the start of his explanations, Kahneman (who seems to get a thrill out of of coining new expressions) has introduced a terminological gimmick, which also annoys me. He designates "fast thinking" as System 1, and "slow thinking" as System 2. OK, fair enough. But was it necessary to write an entire book on the basis of this obvious hierarchy, which has been been a constant preoccupation of researchers for ages in fields such as cognitive science, artificial intelligence and brain research?

At times, I had the impression that the subject of Kahneman's book was closer to elementary statistics, decision-making (as in business) and games theory than to psychology. Many of his explanations are based upon personal anecdotes in various professional and academic environments, where Kahneman often seemed to arrive on the scene like Zorro, eager to correct all the mistakes perpetrated by the numbskulls who had been there prior to him. For example, there's a chapter entitled "Regression to the mean" which starts out by explaining that the author had "one of the most satisfying eureka experiences of [his] career while teaching flight instructors in the Israeli Air Force about the psychology of effective training". A seasoned instructor pointed out that praising an exceptionally high-quality flight performance served no useful purpose, because the pilot would inevitably fly much worse the following day. On the other hand, this instructor considered that it was a good idea to scream at a pilot who had flown exceptionally poorly, because he would inevitably improve his performance the following day. Now, on the surface, that situation might appear to have something to do with the question of rewards and punishment in the domain of human psychology. But Kahneman's "eureka experience" consisted of his realizing a very banal fact that has nothing to do with psychology. If a pilot flies exceptionally well one day, then he's likely (for purely statistical reasons) to fly less well the next day. And if a pilot flies exceptionally badly one day, then he's likely (for the same statistical reasons) to fly a little better the next day. So, what else is new? Kahneman is so excited about this personal revelation that he introduces another example, summed up in the following sentence:

Highly intelligent women tend to marry men who are less intelligent than they are.

Is this banal observation a pretext for getting involved in reflections about the reasons that might push a bright girl into wedding a dumb guy? No, there is no reason whatsoever to tackle the question at that level. The elementary theory of probability provides a total explanation of the situation. There are only so many highly intelligent women looking for husbands, whereas there are hordes of numbskulls ready to be chosen. So, it's inevitable, statistically, that most bright girls end up marrying relatively dumb guys.

I was a 17-year-old student back in Australia when I heard about regression analysis (the name of the approach that started out as "regression to the mean") and correlation. Admittedly, Kahneman introduces these cases of regression as counter-examples, which have nothing to do with genuine human psychology, but I find it amazing that a Nobel laureate in economics could get excited today about such everyday stuff.

Something about Kahneman's style makes me consider his book as a specimen of popular psychology of the kind you often meet up with in magazines and training seminars. He reminds me of Edward de Bono and his thinking hats, or Nassim Taleb and his black swans. In any case, one of these days I promise to reread Kahneman's book, to see if I maybe missed out on something during my initial reading.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011


When I was a 14-year-old kid hanging around in the rough competitive-cycling environment of my native Grafton and Coffs Harbour, the very idea of a cultivated gentleman cyclist such as Cadel Evans would have been unthinkable. Inversely, I eavesdropped on many uncouth conversations about sex. Retrospectively, I believe—although I can't vouch for it—that I had already, at that time, acquired sufficient algebraic knowledge and sexual self-awareness to appreciate a remarkable law of the dynamics of male nature: The angle of the dangle is proportional to the heat of the meat. That's to say, a cold penis will hang limply and vertically (angle zero), whereas a warmed-up hunk of meat will rise magically to a right angle, or even greater. What I didn't understand clearly at that time was that the warming-up process was a largely-cerebral affair, which only needed to be triggered by the vision of a nymph, a young angel, an ethereal creature with a seductive look… accompanied generally by a luscious mouth, attractive breasts and an enticing backside. In those days, people used to talk a lot about love, even divinely-consecrated eternal love… but I had to wait a long while before I started to hear intelligent talk—from brilliant happily-married intellectuals such as Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker—about our inbuilt animal sex drives.

Concerning my former politico-economic hero Dominique Strauss-Kahn, I must admit that a cloud of disbelief engulfed me when I witnessed the female object that apparently heated his meat. I'm not talking of the complex human being named Nafissatou Diallo, herself, but merely of her image as a sexual challenge: an object capable of augmenting Strauss-Kahn's angle of the dangle.

Once upon a time, I revered the ethereal beauty and brilliance of Anne Sinclair, who appeared to me (that's to say, to my concupiscent regard) as the epitome of the French female. At that time, I didn't yet know that she was filthy rich, attached to the USA, and capable of falling totally in love with, and protecting, a powerful male. Today, I still admire Anne, of course, but she doesn't come through quite as angelically untainted as she used to. More precisely, I can't help wondering whether she might have been duped by the indubitable promises of DSK. Even more precisely, it would be good if Anne were to tell us simply (former admirers of the journalist and partisans of DSK) how she looks upon, globally, this whole "heat of the meat" subject.

Let me turn to another distortion: Rupert Murdoch.

[Click the image for an amusing Onion satire on Rupert's distortions of reality.]

I've always loved the Simpsons, who remain for me the perfect illustration of nasty life in God's Own Country. Apparently, there are evil-minded observers who would wish to see similarities between Rupert and the venerable Grandpa Simpson.

Personally, I'm profoundly attached to the past, particularly through my genealogical pursuits. On the other hand, I've always been terrified by the horrible eventuality of becoming, as my age advances, what my Aussie mates in Grafton would have labeled an SOB [silly old bugger]. For the moment, I'm sufficiently lucid, I believe, to know what I'm doing, especially in the domain of autobiographical writing, which forces me to be alert and perspicacious. But I'm terrified at times by the looming apparitions, around me, of certain former friends who seem to be transforming themselves inevitably—cerebrally, no doubt, but not knowingly, I'm afraid—into SOBs of the saddest ranting Rupert kind.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Are certain babies born to be criminals?

I was interested to come across an article in the New York Times [display] entitled Genetic Basis for Crime: A New Look, related to a US conference in Arlington that is opening this morning with a forum on "creating databases for information about DNA and new genetic markers that forensic scientists are discovering".

For many decades, we've all known that, when talking about the fuzzy but touchy subject of crime, it has been politically incorrect to evoke an alleged role of genes. Besides, we're more convinced than ever that, today, the only admissible direct answer to the question in my title—Are certain babies born to be criminals?—is no. But much has been evolving recently concerning our appreciation and evaluation of the undeniable influences of people's genes concerning their future behavior in society. And my question needs to be answered in a far more subtle manner than by a simple yes or no. As soon as I started to read the NYTimes article, I said to myself that the journalist surely couldn't carry on discussing a "new look" at arguments about a genetic basis for crime without mentioning the work of Steven Pinker, as evoked in my blog post of 24 February 2011 entitled I think, therefore I am… misguided [display].

Not surprisingly, the journalist soon got around to quoting Pinker, and even mentioned his latest book—The Better Angels of Our Nature, Why Violence has Declined—which is already announced by Amazon and receiving advanced comments… even though it won't be published until next October!

In The Blank Slate, Pinker started out by evoking the most outspoken observer of Man's propensity to violence: the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes.

Here is the text of Hobbes's "life of man" statement, which so alarmed his fellow citizens that the great thinker's brutal analysis was basically ignored for some three centuries… up until recent times.

Hereby it is manifest that, during the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called war; and such a war as is of every man against every man. In such condition there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

To handle the state of Wild West lawlessness that he depicted as the normal destiny of humans in their natural state, Hobbes suggested that society might install a monstrous all-powerful sheriff, the Leviathan, inspired by ancient Judaic mythology.

But this "solution" was both unpleasant and unconvincing. So, ever since that catastrophic vision of humanity penned by Hobbes, countless critics have been trying to prove, simply, that he was totally wrong.

A few decades ago, many Americans tried to believe that even the worst criminals could be coaxed back into the folds of society by a process designated as rehabilitation. In 1970, a young Texan law professor and former US attorney-general, Ramsey Clark, with an unbounded belief in peace, wrote a book entitled Crime in America in which he sought to promote this wishful thinking.

Here are excerpts from Ramsey Clark on the rehabilitation theme:
Rehabilitation must be the goal of modern corrections. Every other consideration should be subordinate to it. To rehabilitate is to give health, freedom from drugs and alcohol, to provide education, vocational training, understanding and the ability to contribute to society. […]

Rehabilitated, an individual will not have the capacity—cannot bring himself—to injure another or take or destroy property. […]

The end sought by rehabilitation is a stable individual returned to community life, capable of constructive participation and incapable of crime. From the very beginning, the direction of the correctional process must be back toward the community. It is in the community that crime will be committed or a useful life lived.
Today, individuals such as Pinker, convinced that genes influence greatly an individual's propensity to commit crimes, are starting to debunk the "moralistic fallacy" (as he puts it) of rehabilitation. The challenge they face consists of explaining to concerned citizens that emphasizing the primeval causal role of genes in criminality is not at all equivalent to imagining the existence of a single binary-valued "crime gene", which is either turned on in the case of wrongdoers, or off in the case of decent citizens. That is not at all what is meant by a genetic dimension to criminality. It's far more subtle and complex than that. Besides, individuals are not generally condemned to a life of crime by the mere presence of "risky genes". Such a presence would simply indicate that there is probably an accrued risk that such individuals would fall into crime more readily than those who have no such genes. Genes, even when present, can be flipped on and off by environmental factors, and that is what gives us hope as far as combating violence and crime is concerned.

Today, as the article on the Arlington conference points out, the tide is turning in the sense that biology and genetics are no longer dirty words in the arena of research on violence and crime. But it would be naive to imagine that the ideas of an evolutionary psychologist such as Pinker are about to be welcomed wholeheartedly by the entire criminological establishment. In any case, the Hobbesian vision of humanity was surely closer to reality than the "blank slate" thinking of idealists such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Ramsey Clark.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Happiness is a great science book

In the humble and peaceful existence that I lead at Gamone, it's a fact that one of my greatest pleasures consists of having the privilege of getting stuck into various exceptional books. Some of them have become regular companions, which I've reread several times over. For example: The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins, The Blank Slate by Steven Pinker, and The Fabric of Reality by David Deutsch. Over the last decade, various new book-reading elements have been falling into place, making it easier for a science aficionado such as me to get deeply involved in this activity. I'm thinking primarily of the Internet, which enables us to learn of interesting new publications, and to obtain in-depth background information concerning, not only the authors and their books, but also—and above all—the scientific domains to which the books refer. This is particularly true of the various life sciences that interest me—biology, genetics, psychology, human paleontology—but it is also the case for websites about physics and cosmology. All that you then need is time and solitude to carry out your reading. This is ideally the case for me at Gamone, where my only annoying distractions are the present blog (which nevertheless has a few meaningful justifications) and a little too much TV (generally high-quality) at times.

I'm perfectly aware that this kind of totally-introspective almost "absolutist" lifestyle is not helping me to become a well-behaved member of any kind of "society", be it my daily real-life environment at Choranche, or the less-tangible community of individuals with whom I enter in contact through the telephone and the Internet. But I don't look upon my personality, character and behavioral faults as things that need to be modified or "improved". I'm too old for that, and I'm really irreparably obsessed and dominated by my passion for a scientific understanding of my existence.

Today, happiness is not simply a great science book. It's rather a monumental document: The Hidden Reality, the third element of Brian Greene's trilogy that started with The Elegant Universe and The Fabric of the Cosmos.

I've just received it, hot off the press, and I'm taking my time to get stuck into it. I'm like my dog Fitzroy sniffing around a new food delicacy, posing it on the lawn, and trying to figure out the best angle of attack.

The subject of Greene's new book is really powerful stuff: the fascinating mind-boggling mysteries of parallel universes, or so-called multiverses, whose "existence" is strongly suggested these days by quantum mathematics and string theory (Greene's ongoing preoccupation).

I've always looked upon the respective domains of Richard Dawkins and Brian Greene as perfectly complementary quests. Dawkins is telling us what has been happening for a while on this precious little green and blue bubble named Earth, whereas Greene is concerned by a much bigger picture: the Cosmos. If I may push my favorite metaphor to its dizzy limits, the Earth and the Cosmos appear to me as Antipodean partners. For as long as we remain preoccupied by our familiar home planet, even to the extent of examining the unbelievably small and strange entities known as viruses, the Cosmos is a weird otherworldly phenomenon where common sense appears to be walking on its head. But, as soon as we turn to the Cosmos, it's suddenly the gene-based world of Dawkins that seems to be unimaginable, walking on its head, since it contains that extraordinary "thing" called consciousness. Dawkins and Greene are two sides of a single coin. Today, what is utterly amazing is that, through a certain number of great books, we can take hold of that coin and turn it over between our fingers.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Books by Steven Pinker

In the fields of psychology and linguistics, the 56-year-old Harvard professor Steven Pinker is a brilliant thinker, writer and lecturer, on a par with Richard Dawkins in the domains of biology and genetics, and Brian Greene in the cosmological arena.

Pinker's theories and conclusions—based upon methodical analyses of experimental results obtained in field work and in psychological laboratories, often borrowed from colleagues—are totally revolutionary, indeed earth-shaking, and yet he seems to avoid being outlawed and branded as a horseman of the Apocalypse.

He succeeds in coming across as an unassuming academic who rambles on rapidly in a quiet voice, keeping a low profile: a kind of anti-Dawkins. Maybe his apparently peaceful attitude towards religion provides the professor with a reassuring homely bearing, enhanced by his marvelous mop of curly hair. In an interview for The Guardian in 1999, he said: "I was never religious in the theological sense. I never outgrew my conversion to atheism at 13, but at various times was a serious cultural Jew." Whatever the reason, I'm intrigued that Pinker's utterly mind-boggling descriptions of the realities of humanity have not stirred up harsh opposition.

His ideas have been expressed in five wonderful easy-to-read books, which compose two parallel trilogies, as shown here:

The language trilogy, at the top, starts with the book that made Pinker famous: The Language Instinct (1994). Then it includes a technical book on linguistics, Words and Rules (1999), and culminates in The Stuff of Thought (2007), which envisages language as "a window into human nature". This same book plays a double role in that it terminates Pinker's trilogy on human nature, which starts with How the Mind Works (1997) and evolves through a beautifully blasphemous book (from the viewpoint of politically-correct behavior and thinking), The Blank Slate (2002). Click the above chart to access a talk of 2007 in which Pinker presents the themes of his last book.

In my article of April 2010 entitled God travels incognito [display], I spoke of a novel by Pinker's wife Rebecca Goldstein.

Use the search box up in the top left-hand corner of this blog to access other articles in which I've mentioned Steven Pinker and his books.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Loose language

I've already evoked the brilliant books of the Canadian-American psychologist Steven Pinker. He's best tackled, I believe, by The Language Instinct (1994), which explains simply—as its title suggests—that we humans have an instinctive relationship (as if anybody ever doubted it) with the gift of the gab.

From a Pinkerian point of view, my blog title, Loose language, is abominable, since human language is a constantly-evolving process that should never be described as "loose". Lame, lost or lousy, maybe... but never loose, since it remains a mysterious archaic art that experienced human practitioners are constantly perfecting.

This afternoon, I was momentarily surprised to see an exhortation on the cover of a popular French science magazine: Mangez sain. Translated literally into English, that reads: Eat healthy. In grammatical terms, the adjective "healthy" has been placed into a slot that normally receives an adverb such as "healthily". Now, is this a problem that should upset me? No, not at all.

I was vaccinated by the publicity of my favorite computer company:

Apple wasn't suggesting that we should think differently in the same way that you might ask somebody to reply rapidly, to talk calmly or to argue intelligently. The "think different" exhortation simply urged viewers to adjust their thinking to a different context: that of Apple products. That's to say, it was shorthand for: Do your thinking in a different context. So, no major grammatical crime was committed.

The most striking Pinker book, to my mind, is How the Mind Works, which is guaranteed to send shivers down the spine of old-fashioned adepts of Freud. Pinker adopts a totally "mechanistic" explanation of the human mind... where my adjective in inverted commas designates everything that has been happening in computer science and brain research over the last half-century. In a nutshell, everybody knows by now that humans are magnificent machines, neither more nor less. So, why carry on talking as if there were mysterious ghosts in the machines?

As for Freud, he has been thrown out wordlessly and unceremoniously with the slops. Maybe it would have been nicer, more polite, if Pinker had pronounced a wordy eulogy concerning this well-minded Viennese quack doctor who fascinated the Western intellectual world for a century or so... and still does. History has its charms. But time wasted in talking about what we now know to be obsolete nonsense would be better devoted to catching up with the fabulous realities of contemporary science.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Getting the words right

It's amusing that Barack Obama decided to proclaim his oath of allegiance a second time, after the judge screwed it up the first time. And it's interesting to discover that there's no Bible in this repeat event.

Christians might say that God, through His extraordinary communication capabilities, was surely capable of untangling the initial screwed-up message, so there was no point in invoking Him the second time round. It's more likely, I think, that the absence of a Bible proves that, during the screwed-up swearing-in, the Bible was merely part of the decor, rather than an essential element in the act. In my view, this is fair enough, because the role of the book appears to be a rather symbolic do-it-yourself thing in the swearing-in ritual. Each president-to-be seems to have the right to bring along the particular version of the book that pleases him. What would happen, I wonder, if a Jew were to be elected president? Would he be able to bring along a Hebrew edition of the Torah, without any New Testament whatsoever?

On the other hand, this repeat performance of Obama's swearing-in underlines a highly significant aspect of the procedure: namely, the fundamental importance of the exact words pronounced by the future president in his oath. As everybody knows, these words are extracted from the US constitution, and nobody has the right to play around with them, inventing even a trivially modified form of the oath. I found it amusing that the words were screwed up the chief justice John Roberts, nominated in 2005 by a president who became the laughingstock of the planet because of his habit of screwing up words. It was almost as if Roberts had staged deliberately this embarrassing incident as a departure gift to Dubya, to make him feel less alone.

The fundamental nature and all-importance of human language is the subject of The Stuff of Thought by Steven Pinker, which I've been reading slowly over the last week or so.

It's a truly remarkable study of the subtleties of language. I find it a sobering book in that I simply never realized, up until now, the amazing complexity of English verbs, even though I tended to imagine naively that I surely understand, more or less, what they're all about. Often, when words are poorly arranged in a sentence, a native English speaker realizes that something's wrong, but we don't necessarily know why it sounds wrong, and how to fix it. We laugh when we hear of this sign in a bar in Norway: "Ladies are requested not to have children in the bar." But George W Bush spoke that kind of English regularly: "I remember meeting a mother of a child who was abducted by the North Koreans right here in the Oval Office." Talking of Bushspeak, Pinker mentions the former president in The Stuff of Thought: "In 2006 George W Bush signed into law the Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act, which increased the fines for indecent language tenfold and threatened repeat offenders with the loss of their license." Isn't it touching that somebody as badly-spoken as Dubya would be offended by indecent language!

I started this post by talking about Obama's swearing-in. Well, on the theme of swearing and oaths, Pinker's book happens to include one of the most colorful chapters you could ever imagine. The chapter title: The seven words you can't say on television. The great Woody Allen once explained his way of telling somebody to leave: "I told him to be fruitful and multiply, but not in those words." Now, inspired by Woody's words, I really can't end these rambling reflexions about screwed-up words without a few nice words of farewell to the departing president, who impressed countless observers in such a special way: "Be fruitful and multiply, Sir, and enjoy your retirement."

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Smart birds

My dog loves walnuts, which are abundant at Gamone. Periodically, when she's feeling a bit hungry (which is most of the time), Sophia rambles down to the walnut trees and has a small feast. She has no trouble cracking the fruit open with her powerful jaws and then rummaging through the smashed mass for edible fragments. Then she comes back to the house with a single walnut clenched in her mouth, and settles down on the lawn to crack it open and eat it in an almost ritual style, as if there were something special about this particular walnut that she chose to bring back to the house, as a kind of trophy.

It doesn't take much, in Sophia's mind, for a perfectly ordinary act to be elevated to the status of a special event. For example, she can dart off constantly to various places in the vicinity of the house in order to piss and drop her turds. But, whenever Sophia realizes that I'm going to wander up the road and accompany her on such an excursion, our walk is transformed immediately into a Special Event, even though I might accompany her for no more than a hundred meters or so. She leaps around in joy and scrambles across the slopes, as if this were an extraordinary outing, while looking back from time to time to make sure that I'm still participating in our journey.

Although, as I said, Sophia is perfectly capable of breaking open walnuts on her own, she's happy if I can do the job for her. At Gamone, I have a constant stock of orange mesh bags full of fresh walnuts, which I use above all in my bread and cake making. I break the walnuts open using an ordinary steel hammer and a thick wooden cutting block that I brought back from Bangkok, many years ago. As soon as Sophia sees me sitting down alongside a bag of walnuts, the block and a hammer, she joins me, to wait for fallout. On such occasions, the average is one walnut kernel to Sophia for three into William's bowl.

When an animal has neither powerful nut-cracking jaws nor a master with a hammer, it has to rely upon other means, as reveled in this delightful Japanese video:

The other evening, Tineke and Serge evoked enthusiastically a recent TV documentary on the extraordinary cognitive capacities of the native crow from the island of New Caledonia, which has taught itself to find or even build tools (from pine leaves) to catch wood grubs.

[Click the image to visit the Wikipedia page about this fascinating bird.]

Professor Russell Gray, of Auckland, discusses the amazing cognitive talents of this bird in the following two videos:

If I were kind with regard to my lovely dog, I would say that my life with Sophia has made me more and more respectful, over recent years, of the engineering achievements and intellectual qualities of non-human animals. As I said to Tineke and Serge, I have become totally enraptured, on twilight evenings at Gamone, by the spectacle of the flight of bats. Please don't tell Sophia I said this, but I think this evolution in my regard is a consequence, above all, of my intense reading of the brilliant books of Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker. To do justice to everybody, let's conclude that I'm under the combined influence of Dawkins, Pinker and Sophia.