Top ten animals – #3, Ivory-billed Woodpecker

The Ivory-billed Woodpecker, Campephilus principalis, is a bird which any birder would be keen to see just because it’s big and spectacular-looking.

(Audubon painting of some ivorybills, from Wikipedia)

But, of course, that wouldn’t be enough to get it onto my list above other even more spectacular species like the Satyr Tragopan or the Victoria Crowned Pigeon.

No, it’s because it came back from the dead last year. For me, that was the happiest news story of 2005. Every time a species is rediscovered that was thought to be extinct, it raises a flicker of hope that all those others will turn up somewhere – a colony of Great Auks on an obscure island off Finland, perhaps. For a big, dramatic species to go unseen for decades in one of the most-birded countries on earth makes anything seem possible.

The ivorybill is known as the ‘Lord God bird’ – because of people’s reaction on seeing them, rather than in reference to Christ’s habit of banging his head against trees.

January Google search terms

just the usual monthly pick of searches people used to end up at this blog.

correlation fire female
how to make a death mask
bee eater sculptures
8. what is a narwhal?
cardboard tables and bookshelves

and, what might be my new all-time favourite:

looking to be an embalming apprentice in london

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Shaolin Soccer

I watched Shaolin Soccer on DVD the other night. The box is covered in recommendations from the Sun, FHM, Nuts, and similarly blokish publications, which was a bit off-putting, but actually it was the most entertaining film I’ve seen in ages. It uses the classic structure of a ramshackle team of outsiders who finally have to beat the all-conquering professionals in a cup final. The pros are called ‘Team Evil’ which pretty much sets the tone for the whole film.

New Theme

I’ve come up with a new design for the site, as I think should be pretty obvious. If you prefer the calmer qualities of the old look, there’s now a theme switcher in the sidebar so you can pick your favourite. The scarab picture is used by kind permission of elina. Fab, innit?

The main problem with the new theme from a design POV is that it looks a bit peculiar if you’re looking at a single post which isn’t very long. But I can’t think of an easy answer to that one. It’s also a wee bit visually aggressive, but hey, that’s what the theme switcher is for – you can take your pick.

RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch 2006

If you’re in the UK, there’s still time to do the RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch 2006 this weekend. Just watch your garden or local park for an hour, record all the bird species and what the maximum number you saw at one time was, and submit the results to the RSPB.

This year I saw:

blue tit – 6
great tit – 3
coal tit – 1

siskin – 3
chaffinch – 7
greenfinch – 5
goldfinch – 2

nuthatch – 1
wren – 1
dunnock – 1
goldcrest – 1
robin – 1

jay – 1
magpie – 1
carrion crow – 2

great spotted woodpecker – 2
ring-necked parakeet – 2
feral pigeon – 8

song thrush – 1
blackbird – 3

which isn’t bad. Marginally better than last year, though I’m interested to see I had three starlings last year, because there aren’t any around at the moment. Still no house sparrows, sadly. I’ve seen one about 5 minutes walk away, so perhaps in a year or two they’ll be back here.

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Mask of the Week

More from the BM, because they’ve got so much good stuff. This time a mask of Dzoonokwa:

Kwakwaka’wakw, 19th century AD, from British Columbia

Dzoonokwa is a giant of the forest, or Wild Woman of the Woods. She eats children, stops people from fishing, and encourages war. In one story a young woman comes across a Dzoonokwa catching salmon; she kills her and her family and uses the mother’s skull as a bath for her own daughter’s ritual empowerment. They were not all evil though; when a Dzoonokwa came across young men she may give them supernatural gifts – a self-paddling canoe, or the water of life.

Kwakwaka’wakw masks represent her with pursed lips so that the dancer wearing the mask could frighten the crowd with cries of ‘Ho, ho’.

Top ten animals – #4, Wandering Albatross

Having already had the world’s largest turtle and the world’s longest fish, I’m in danger of coming across as a complete size queen, because now we have the Wandering Albatross, Diomedea exulans, which has the longest wingspan of any bird – one was measured at 11′ 10″. This photo is from 70 South:

Actually, though, it’s not just about the size – though that’s certainly a part of the appeal. There are just certain birds that catch your imagination. When I went birding in South America, the one thing I most wanted to see, and was most excited when I did see, was a toucan. Somehow they seemed like the absolute embodiment of the exotic, and to see them wild instead of in a cage was magical. Presumably someone else might have the same feeling about macaws, or quetzals, or scarlet ibis, but for me it was toucans.

Albatrosses have a similar appeal for me; breeding on little rocky islands in the southern oceans and spending most of their lives at sea, they are the epitome of wildness. I’d be happy to see any of them, but if I’m going to pick one, it has to be Wandering Albatross, the most albatrossy of all.

And they have that whole Coleridge thing going for them as well, of course.

Hypergraphia for Poetry in an Epileptic Patient

I got this link from somewhere – Bookslut, maybe? – but anyway, it’s a letter to The Journal of Neuropsychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences.

An epileptic patient “complained of being driven to write poetry. For 5 years, he experienced words as ‘continuously rhyming in his head’ and felt the need to write them down and show his writings to others. He did not talk in rhyme, write excessively in nonrhyme, or read poetry. The patient had not had a preoccupation with poetry until age 53 when he had the subacute onset of behavioral changes with irritability and anger.”

The brain really is peculiar. The fact that someone with brain damage would experience words rhyming in his head is remarkable but, given the extensive brain area devoted to language recognition and formation, makes some sense. The need to write it down and show it to people is what strikes me as most interesting. It suggests that the brain isn’t just exhibiting some kind of linguistic tic, but that the stimulus is somehow acting on his whole concept of poetry, including the associated ideas that you write it down and show it people.

Burns Night

I’m convinced that Burns Night is Scotland’s practical joke on the world. If you were writing a list of three ways to spoil a perfectly good dinner party, it would be hard to beat:

1) serve haggis and swedes
2) recite incomprehensible poetry
3) have bagpipe music

No wonder people drink whisky with it – it’s the only thing strong enough to dull the pain.

Diaries and such

On Radio 4 today, they were talking about the editing process for John Fowles’ journals [you know, the guy who wrote The French Lieutenant’s Woman], and I found myself thinking “I’ve never managed to maintain a diary for more than a couple of days”. Which is an odd thing to say, when this blog has been existing since Oct 3rd 2004. But blogging ain’t the same. I’m writing for immediate consumption. Often, consumption by random googling strangers [Hiya, y’all!]. As such, this is a pretty impersonal space, even though I know that, with a bit of fairy dust [i.e. chatty, entertaining prose-style], some soul-baring could help attract traffic.

It’s an odd medium, really. Media coverage tends to concentrate on ways in which blogging competes with the traditional media – political opinion pieces, movie reviews and so on. That seems like a transitional phase, to me. The current bloggers’ term of ‘MSM’ (i.e. Main Stream Media) is equally a result of the newness of the situation – in a few years, a lot of bloggers will be mainstream and it will just be treated like another medium.

But blogging is just a medium, like TV or newspapers or books. What will be interesting is people finding new, different markets for words that would never be viable under the old model.

Top ten animals – #5, Oarfish

So, what’s the world’s biggest fish? That’s easy – it’s the Whale Shark. But what about the world’s longest fish? Well, that’s probably the Whale Shark too, to be honest – the trouble is, it’s a category that tends to attract a lot of over-excited and completely unconfirmable reports. But the other fish that has a claim to be the longest is a species of Oarfish, Regalecus glesne, sometimes called ‘King of Herrings’:

It’s certainly the longest bony fish in the world; i.e. it’s not a shark. As an evolutionary footnote, you are more closely related to the Oarfish than the Oarfish is related to the sharks. If you think about it, that has to be true, because all mammals and bony fish are descended from some first ancestral bony fish, whereas sharks (which have cartilaginous skeletons) are not. The heaviest bony fish is the Sunfish, Mola mola. All giant fish species – the big sharks, the sunfish, and others like the Manta Ray – would be great to see. But the Oarfish really caught my imagination when I learnt about them as a kid, and I’d still love to see one – preferably a big one. How big? Well, they’ve been reliably measured to about 12m (40′), apparently, but reported up to lengths of 17m – 56′. That’s the height of a 5 storey building. Height is the right word here because, as you can see above, they have a very peculiar posture when feeding. Here’s some Navy Seals with a 24′ specimen:

Rousseau at the Tate

Back to Rousseau. The painter, not Jean-Jacques. I’m afraid the exhibition, Henri Rousseau: Jungles in Paris is nearly over, so this won’t be much use to anyone who was trying to decide whether to see it.

Rousseau was a bit of an oddity. He was self-taught and, according to the exhibition blurb, he aspired to joining the academic, classical tradition. Instead, his work was very much admired by a younger generation of artists, like Picasso, whose work Rousseau apparently didn’t like much. Which makes it hard to know what to make of him. If he was literally trying to produce paintings that looked like academic works, then he failed. On the other hand, his similarity to the Modernists is striking – his work has a limited sense of depth, a strong sense of colour and design, and is highly stylised.

But of course, these things are also characteristic of folk art; they seem, in fact, to be typical of self-taught artists generally. This is a self-portrait by Rousseau:

this is an anonymous panel from the American Folk Art Museum:

So was Rousseau absorbed into the canon, rather than relegated to folk art status, just because he happened to be in the right place at the right time? Well, there may be an element of that, but he does have some distinctive things in his favour. His compositions and use of colour are gorgeous, for a start. The most famous thing about him is the choice of subject matter, of course, in the jungle paintings. There was a lot of good contextual stuff in the exhibition, much of which you can see on that website, to show that the jungle paintings weren’t quite as random as you might think. There were World’s Fairs held in Paris in 1878, 1889 and 1900, and sensational portrayals of Africa were in the air in the French equivalents of Rider Haggard. There’s a startlingly dodgy statue in the exhibition (not by Rousseau) of a nubile woman being abducted by a gorilla, for example. For that matter, the Cubist interest in African art is an only slightly more enlightened version of the same thing.

Kowing where he got his ideas from doesn’t make the paintings any less peculiar, of course. In The Hungry Lion Throws itself on the Antelope, it isn’t the central struggle that is most remarkable, it’s all the other animals lurking in the jungle – an eagle, an owly thing, a leopard and a weird gorilla-bear creature, several of them with strips of bloody flesh hanging from their mouths.

Anyway. It’s a big subject and I’m not about to do it justice here. Interesting though. I’d recommend the exhibition if you’re in London in the next 11 days.

Top ten animals – #6, Kiwi

Depending on whether you ask a lumper or a splitter, there are somewhere between three and six species of kiwi. I’m not going to specify one. This is a picture of a Little Spotted Kiwi, Apteryx owenii, the smallest of the kiwis, taken from the website of the Karori Wildlife Sanctuary. In Maori it has the fabulous name kiwi-pukupuku.

In some ways the kiwi is an odd choice to get into the top ten – it’s just a drab brown bird the size of a chicken. I guess it’s mainly the fascination of a bird that is so un-birdy; penguins and anhingas have the same appeal. Not only are kiwis flightless and without obvious wings, they don’t even appear to have feathers. They also get bonus points for living in New Zealand – i.e. a very long way away from where I live, and somewhere I’d love to go some time.

A few facts about kiwis. They’re nocturnal – hence the picture above. They have their nostrils at the end of their beaks, uniquely among birds, presumably to help them find food – they have rubbish eyesight. In fact, I think it’s the only nocturnal bird that has moved from eyesight to another main sense (although the oilbird, which nests in caves, does have primitive sonar). They are in the same family – ratites – as other famous flightless birds like the ostrich, rhea, emu and cassowary. As they shrunk to their present size from their larger ancestor, the egg shrank more slowly then the overall body size, as can be seen in this uncomfortable-looking x-ray:

The Gospel of the Flying Spaghetti Monster

Booby Henderson, the founder of the Church of the FSM, has produced a book, The Gospel of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. He has decided to use the profits towards buying a missionary pirate ship to spread the word. There’s a petition you can sign to try and persudade the US government that the Church of the FSM is a real religion and deserving of tax-free status.

I actually think that the whole FSM thing is a bit annoying. It’s somewhat amusing, and the phrase ‘noodly appendage’ is a fine addition to the language, but the more it goes on, the more it becomes a satire on religion, rather than a focussed argument against the teaching of ID in schools. I have no objection to people satirising religion, but given the high percentage of church-goers in the US, the anti-ID movement needs to win over moderate Christians. Trying to be the calm voice of reason seems a better way of doing that than mocking people’s sincere beliefs.

Even more annoying, for me, is that the FSM idea doesn’t even stand up in the first place. In Henderson’s original letter, he basically said that he had an alternative explanation for life, and if they were going to teach non-scientific theories in school, his theory was just as good as ID. But the whole point of ID is that it is creationism stripped of the scriptural references as a way of getting around the consitutional separation of church and state. Once you strip away the scriptural details of FSMism – the noodliness, the heavenly beer volcano, the pirates – what you’re left with is the assertion that life was created by an intelligent designer. It’s not an alternative to ID – it *is* ID. What the satire really needs is an alternative explanation for how life came to be – however ridiculous – not just a different version of the same thing.

And yes, I do know that I’m too literal-minded for my own good.

Mask of the Week

Another one from the BM, this from the Chewa people:

What they have to say:

This mask depicts a royal escort who accompanied Queen Elizabeth on an official visit to Malawi in 1979. He was described as ‘tall, heavy, a big man with a moustache and quite handsome’. His image was recreated two weeks later by a mask-maker who had watched the Queen’s arrival at the airport. The mask is made of wood painted pale pink. It has striking eyebrows and a moustache of synthetic fur. It would have been worn with a full length costume made of composite materials.

Simoni masks represent the youngest son of the chief and are often associated with foreigners, especially from the colonial period. They have either red or flesh-coloured painted faces and their dances suggest power and authority. Simoni is seen as intelligent and successful, but also shrewd and dangerous.

‘How Language Works’ by David Crystal

I’ve just finished How Language Works by David Crystal, the linguist who wrote the excellent The Stories of English.

It’s a slightly odd book to be marketed as popular non-fiction, in that it doesn’t have any central hook. Rather it’s a broad survey of all aspects of language; it reads rather like an introductory text for an undergraduate course in linguistics. Perhaps that what he had in mind before his publisher decided to try and cash in on the success of Stories. Anyway, it consists of 73 chapters, all phrased as answers to a ‘How?’ question. He compares it to a car manual, with each chapter designed to be pretty much self-contained. i.e., picking some fairly random examples:

How we make speech sounds
How we peceive speech
How we learn to read and write
How we analyse meaning
How conversation works
How we know where someone is from
How the Indo-European family is organised
How we cope with many languages: translate them

Obviously, any of those is a subject that could fill a whole book, so even at 500 pages, the book can only skim over them.

If you’ve read your Steven Pinker most of this stuff will be broadly familiar, but he still held my attention all the way through. It’s clear, interesting, well-written, quietly entertaining, and Crystal obviously knows his stuff. I hope the lack of a clear USP doesn’t restrict sales too much.

Top ten animals – #7, Leatherback Turtle

Next up is the Leatherback Turtle, Dermochelys coriacea.

I’ve wanted to seeone of these since I saw a stuffed specimen at the Natural History Museum as a kid. I couldn’t believe how big it was. They grow to eight feet long and bulky with it. As you can see in this picture of people from the Monterey Bay National Marine Sancturay tagging a leatherback, that’s quite big:

Reptiles evolved as land animals, of course; that’s the point of having waterproof skin and laying leathery eggs. But they’ve returned to the water 16 times over the course of evolutionary history. Remarkably, although the marine turtles evolved from a tortoise-like land animal, modern tortoises are evolved from aquatic ancestors; which means they came out of the sea, went back in, then came out again.

The shells of tortoises and turtles are evolved from their ribs, rather freakily, so they’re all hollow inside:

Leatherbacks mainly eat jellyfish, which is very public-spirited of them, and so they often die after choking on plastic bags. Their distinctive appearance is due to them having lost the bony shell in favour of a thick rubbery skin stiffened with cartilage and small bits of bone (that skeleton above is some other kind of turtle). Leatherback-type turtle fossils have been found as far back as the Eocene, apparently (i.e. over 35 million years ago), but D. coriacea is the only surviving species.

Anyway, I seem to have wandered from ‘why I would like to see a leatherback’ (recap: they’re really big!) to a list of turtle-facts. So before it gets any geekier, assuming that’s even possible – finis.