Wednesday, May 31, 2017


Part two of May. It's all held together by a very strong thread of whales & dolphins.

I feel as though I'm doing a research paper on whales & dolphins and am just in the research phase right now, trying to make connections. I'm certainly doing a lot more research than I usually do for these reviews, but it's more to do with the fact that they're so closely related and feed off of one another so easily that I can't help but compare & contrast, which leads to some external research. So this is going to be a long one, despite having fewer than 10 items on the list. The first one kind of jumps around, but it gets smoother as I move onto the next two books and relate them to Cultural Lives.

On a related note, I recently found out about Unpaywall, which came up in an article on LibraryJournal. Although I haven't really been doing much that requires free access to scholarly articles, I do still appreciate that it's become that much easier to access them, legally!
Also, ResearchGate, though I have yet to request anything, appears to be a pretty cool resource as well. It looks like you request the article directly from the authors?

I thought I had written a little blurb about Do Whales Get the Bends, but I suppose not? I didn't finish it, so that makes sense. They do, by the way. And I learned about the Coriolus effect from that also, which I'm pretty sure I've learned about before (in elementary school maybe?) and forgotten all about until I read it again in that book. Cool stuff. Hahaha I totally did write about it already. Just in my last post. How did I miss that? Wow.

  1. The Cultural Lives of  Whales and Dolphins by Hal Whitehead and Luke Rendell
    • There's less information under this review than in the other two cetacean books below, mostly because I found it easier to relate this as my base and talk about specific things from it in relation to whatever I read in the other two books.
    • Let me just gush a bit about how the authors have organized this book, and how they have, firstly, defined their terms and discussed other definitions and why they do or do not subscribe to them, along with pros and cons of using their definition v.s. others; secondly, they discuss other viewpoints and present arguments to their own interpretation of the observation data available to them, offering the reader the chance to consider alternative explanations - it can sometimes be very easy to become swept along at the author's pace if you're not reading especially critically (maybe it's just me that reads quite that unthinkingly sometimes), so I really appreciate that the authors should present voices of dissent; and overall, this book is just so well structured! It's easy to follow each of the chapters, despite the dense look of the typeset and the academic feel of the text, and Whitehead & Rendell present plenty of examples of what might constitute culture in cetaceans. And I know this one should be standard practice, but sadly it is not always the case (I'm looking at you Christopher Hibbert), but they provide endnotes, some of which expand upon the point, all of which give you where the authors found what information, in case you're so inclined to go look at the original source.
      • Although Whitehead & Rendell make note of alternate explanations for certain behaviours throughout the chapters as well, they do have a separate chapter altogether dedicated to highlighting opposing viewpoints and detailing their own arguments against them or just pointing out how impractical it would be to apply the same standards across the animal kingdom, alternatively accepting point blank that there is still room for doubt, even if there is a lot of evidence that supports there being culture in cetaceans.
      • Some of the arguments against cetacean culture that Whitehead & Rendell lay out strike me as straw men (in the sense that even the authors say that you'd have to opt for rather convoluted reasoning in order to arrive at those alternative conclusions just to steer clear of "culture" per se), and I'm not sure if that's just because they are, or if there are other arguments not cited in this book. I'm pretty taken with the authors here, so I'm leaning heavily towards the counter-arguments riding a lot on technicalities and semantics - granted, technicalities are important, because otherwise it'd be no use to define anything well enough to study them.
        • They spend quite a bit of time expanding on alternate views and detailing what it is that opponents are latching onto, which makes this a great place to start, but when I say this, I don't mean to say that it is just an introductory level book, in that Whitehead & Rendell are incredibly thorough. I've got a couple more books to go that talk about either whales or dolphins specifically, but even if I didn't, I think I would be pretty satisfied having read this one. Obviously, there is more to learn about cetaceans that they do not cover, either because it is outside of the scope of this book (i.e. not really about culture in cetaceans), or simply because they are not aiming to become the authority or touchstone book regarding everything to do with whales and dolphins. Whitehead & Rendell do a great job sticking to the point and laying out their arguments in a way that I think appeals (and satisfies) both leisurely readers as well as those who might come from a more scholarly or academic background.
    • I love the way this was written in terms of style as well, especially considering the fact that it's a collaboration! I'm not sure if it's because it was mostly one person doing the bulk of the writing, but it's incredibly easy to follow (if a bit dense), the style remains constant throughout without being cut-and-dry, and the authors retain a dry humour that I appreciated. As an example, "thanks are due to the unhurried pace of some Costa Rican customs procedures" (p.304), as that was when the outline of the book was written by Whitehead.
      • Also, the bibliography stretches from pages 351-398. And if you're wondering where any of the information that is outlined in the book came from, the notes from pages 307-349 will most likely cover that for you.
    • Hypothesis-testing, flawed? I'd love to read more on this! Especially considering that that's basically all you get taught in Statistics in undergrad (or at least the intro to stats, along with advanced stats, and at least for my psych - not sure about other programs and other schools).
    • Haplodiploidy is pretty weird.
    • In the case of the two girls of Midnapore, India, raised by a wolf mother till around the age of 8, when they were taken into human custody (p.199), I wonder why they felt the need to remove them from their wolf family? I suspect even now it would happen, but if they have assimilated into the life of being a wolf, why not just let it be? Especially seeing as "the children were profoundly incapable of functioning independently in human society, with no evidence they ever approached concepts of things like shared meanings or cultural identity" (p.199).
      • This story was related in relation to Keiko, whose freedom was campaigned after the Free Willy movie, and was released, but was unable to integrate into the wild Icelandic pod, continuing to be fed by humans throughout his life (pp.200-201). It appears killer whales require social input in the early stages of their development in order to assimilate into a pod, akin to the way humans require social input to experience normal development.
    • Is the 52-Hz whale the loneliest whale? It is! Is there a possibility it is/was a hybrid whale? That BBC article ends saying there might be more than one other whale out there singing at around 50-Hz, and that 52 might just have been a wandering member... but what are the chances of that? Another blog post about that here, from UCL, but nothing in the lit.
    • I haven't found it again, but in one of the chapters, I'm not sure whether the authors were making a joke or what, but they said something along the lines of "whales occasionally pair up to beach together, and group suicide looks a lot like a social act to us", which just tickled me pink. Of course, I'm reading this in the driest voice you might be able to muster.
      • As it happens, this is not a joke: whales do beach together, intentionally, though the reasons for this elude us. Whitehead & Rendell discuss this later in the book when they talk about the effects of culture on a species (pros/cons), one of the cons being that maladaptive behaviours (read: stupid behaviours) sometimes stick.
      • See below (when I discuss Are Dolphins Really Smart?) for more detail on this.
    • If there's some evidence that the advent of killer whales around ten million years ago coincided with the "disappearance of about half the species of cetaceans, pinnipeds, and sirenians" (p.248 & in chapter 6), why should we think that humans are acting outside of the way nature works in our rather total devastation of habitats supporting wildlife, whether on land or in the oceans? I'm not saying we shouldn't try to help other species survive - I'm just wondering why we don't consider it part of the natural flow of things. Is it because we're destroying habitats at a much faster pace than ever before (as far as we know) and making it so that extirpation of animals around the world is on the rise? Or is it mostly to stroke our own egos and make ourselves feel better? I'm not discounting the other possibility, of course: we done goofed and we're just trying to make amends.
      • It would be interesting to see what past mass wipe-outs have been like (I'm sure I've read about it before in another book - I think possibly in Randall's Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs, but I could be incredibly off the mark), and see whether we're just following the pattern (if there is one).
    • The authors gave me more information about killer whales than all of the previous books I've read combined (granted, none of them were focused specifically on whales and dolphins): there are more than just the two ecotypes that other books mention!
      • In the northwest Pacific, 3: transients, residents, and offshores (deepwater fish, esp. sharks)
      • northeast Atlantic, at least 2: cetacean hunters & type 2 generalized diet
      • Antarctic, at least 5, maybe more: type A (minke whales), pack-ice (seals), Gerlache (penguins), Ross Sea & sub-Antarctic both eat fish
        • This is way more detail than the more simplistic "residents v. transients" information I was getting before, and assuming each ecotype is also morphologically different, how different do they get before branching off into separate species altogether? Or are they prevented from doing so because they deplete their food supply (as there is some evidence to suggest it has happened in the past)? (pp.132-133 & later on as well).
        • And the reason for all these ecotypes? Apparently 3 main reasons: picky eaters, xenophobic, and culture (p.129). 
    • Genetic bottlenecking: I'm super confused, and not because I don't understand what Whitehead & Rendell are saying about it here, but because in Into Great Silence (below), there seems to be a completely opposite use of the term. Does it apply to both situations? Discussion below.
      • Also, bottlenecking and in relation to Palumbi & Palumbi's The Extreme Life of the Sea, where they briefly discussed how both giant squids and sperm whales had surprisingly low genetic diversity, which might have happened because of genetic bottlenecking happening to both of them around the same time. I forget exactly what they said about it, but I believe it was something along the lines of "sperm whales & giant squids came into being around the same time, and both went through genetic bottlenecking because of their relationship to one another (or because of shared environments? not sure) and so the low genetic diversity found in both of them can be thus explained". Which means it cannot be thus explained, and there must be another reason why both of these species, one of which feeds on the other, both contain such startling low genetic diversity. For the sperm whales, Whitehead has suggested cultural hitchhiking (see below), but this works only because sperm whales are matrilineal in nature, which means it wouldn't apply to the giant squid. Does that mean it's just a coincidence? Or is there something to the predator-prey relationship that made it so? Specific genetic mutations didn't survive in squid because of the genes that did in sperm whales, perhaps? It just so happened that those neutral tagalongs (or perhaps the more actively chosen genes) affected the fitness of the squid because they were being hunted in such and such ways? Would love to read more about it.
    • This is really frustrating, but I can't find two articles (or perhaps one was The Gene by Mukherjee) that discuss how your grandparents starving as children might either increase or reduce your chances of obesity. I believe they said contrasting things, although I'm almost positive the first one I read was talking about a potato famine - I don't remember if it was in Ireland or Denmark, or perhaps elsewhere altogether - and the second one more recently stated that it helps reduce your chances of obesity if your grandparents starved as children.
    • Some articles that might be of interest:
      • Does theory of flocking affect the way in which culture disseminates? Also bowerbirds and the way they imitate their neighbours in the way they decorate their bowers (p.280)? It's social learning, which flocking doesn't sound to be (since flocking is more just in reaction to the 7 closest partners, or however many it is). But I wonder if any of that translates over?
      • Evolution Runs Faster on Shorter Timelines as it relates to white/pink/red environment and how that influences cultural evolution.
        • So evolution doesn't run on red scales, then, because on shorter timescales, they change a great deal and change much less over the long run. In which case, pink noise seems like it's the best fit there. Or does it even make any sense to talk about genetic mutation in terms of frequency scales? Since in Cultural Lives, it seems like the concept is used more to talk about cultural evolution and how useful it is in different environments as compared to (or in addition to) genetic mutation: that is, when is culture more useful than genetic mutation?
      • Possible Quanta articles of interest: Scientists Seek to Update EvolutionThe Beasts That Keep the BeatCan Darwinian Evolution Explain Lamarckism?, and A Map of Human History, Hidden in DNA. Interestingly enough, Scientists Seek to Update Evolution talks about Kevin Laland, with whom Rendell had been working before working on this book.
    • On a slightly unrelated note: is this the same Tomasello talking about human & nonhuman culture (p.34-5) as the Tomasello mentioned in Are Dolphins Really Smart (see below) and from The Hunt for the Golden Mole? I'd really like to know, because it if is... well. That's kind of amazing.
  2. Land in Sight (2013)
    • My brother won two tickets for this movie from the Goethe Institut, so I got the chance to go see this one. It was less surprising to me than I expected it to be, and one scene reminded me a lot of a documentary film we watched in an anthropology course, showing how a woman in the Philippines was trying to get married to a customer at the club she works at - the man hailing from the United States.
  3. Onegin musical by Amiel Gladstone and Veda Hille
    • Wow! This was such a fun performance! I had an inkling of what Onegin was about, never having read the poem nor gone to any of the other performances (though I did want to attend the ballet, I didn't end up doing so), but this was so much more energetic than I had expected. I originally thought it'd be a pretty sad affair, considering it's pretty much rejection after rejection - and add to that the death of Lensky - so I was very pleasantly surprised at how upbeat it all was. This is motivating me to actually pick up the copy of Onegin I have in translation to read it through.
    • I really enjoyed the songs throughout (see Let me Die here), especially the Once More, Onegin that Onegin sings at the end with Tatiana. I did find that Josh Epstein, who plays Vladimir Lensky, seemed to stand out quite a bit in terms of his singing - if I'm remembering correctly, he was in another Onegin musical that took place in Vancouver, which makes sense to me. All of the cast's voices were lovely, don't get me wrong! There was just something about Epstein's voice that seemed to me to take everything one step further.
    • I also know how to pronounce Onegin now, which is a plus!
  4. Into Great Silence: A Memoir of Discovery and Loss Among Vanishing Orcas by Eva Saulitis
    • This was a great followup to The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins! The style is completely different, and you have completely different expectations as to how the authors relay information: Saulitis takes the storytelling approach, with short chapters, where Whitehead & Rendell took the academic/scholarly approach. I think in part because I read Cultural Lives first, I was able to enjoy Into Great Silence more than I would have if I had switched up the order.
    • Saulitis relates her experiences with the Chugach transient pod to her own maturation as a researcher and a scientist, starting out in a fishery and only encountering her first orca by chance. It's an intimate story that is made more relatable as Saulitis draws parallels between her own life and the lessons she learns during her research at Sound, as well as the parallel to the Eyak and other indigenous cultures that have orcas embedded in their cultures and traditions.
    • OK wait. Saulitis' bottleneck sounds like the exact opposite of how Whitehead & Rendell describe genetic bottlenecking! In fact, what they're saying seems to contradict each other completely:
      • "Lance's genetic study suggested that the Chugach transients exist in a population bottleneck. The animals he sampled had much higher genetic diversity than one would expect in such a small, insular population. That's why, with only twenty-two members before the spill, they could still produce calves. Genetic bottlenecks can result from a sudden decrease in population size. You can live inside a bottleneck for a very long time, but.. you are vulnerable" (Saulitis, p.229).
      • In contrast, Whitehead & Rendell say, "the matrilineal whales - the killer whale, sperm whale, and the blackfish species - have a genetic anomaly. The diversity of their mitochondrial genomes, which they inherit from their mothers, is remarkably low, about a tenth of that of other whale and dolphin species with similar populations" (p.238). A few explanations were proposed:
        • Genetic bottleneck, where a population is very small, resulting in few individuals carrying genes, some of which are related and thus overlap. "Thus, during the bottleneck, the total number of different genes in the population is few. Later, the population may increase, but the number of different genes, which all come from the same few individuals that lived through the bottleneck, stays low. Hence a bottleneck can reduce the genetic diversity of a population" (p.239). Whitehead & Rendell find issue with this explanation for the low diversity in mitochondrial genomes for the matrilineal whales though.
        • The second argument is that those specific genes that don't change much are important for the animal's survival. Again, they find issue with this explanation. A third explanation was the matrilineal nature of the whales being the cause, which was also rejected, because the whales of a pod don't all tend to die together (with the exception of mass strandings).
        • Whithead proposes cultural hitchhiking to explain this genetic anomaly instead: neutral variants are linked to genes that are selected for, so even though they don't directly affect fitness, they tag along for the ride, reducing variation in neutral genetic variants (p.240).
      • So now, back to discussing genetic bottlenecking. How can both descriptions be correct? There's the possibility that for the Chugach transients, there's more movement (in and out of members of the pod) than in the killer whale populations discussed in Cultural Lives for this section? Or perhaps the population used to be a lot larger, and bottlenecked not too long ago, so there's still genetic variety - more than expected for such a small population - but it's still a bottleneck. In theory, different parts of the bottleneck are being described: for the Chugachs, pretty close to the bottleneck incident in evolutionary terms; for Whitehead & Rendell's killer whales generally (nevermind that they reject the bottleneck hypothesis), further down the bottle, around where the body is after everything has settled down.
        • Alternatively, Whitehead & Rendell's bottleneck refers to a population that started out small before booming, whereas the Chugachs started out large before suddenly getting culled somehow. Kind of like flipping the bottle around. It's pretty confusing because they don't discuss different types of genetic bottlenecking, so I'm under the impression there's just the one and apparently I'm not understanding it because these two books seem to say completely opposite things!
      • Edited: I think it might be the case that what Saulitis meant was that for the fact that the AT1 community is constituted of 10 individuals, they had greater genetic diversity than expected (with full knowledge that killer whales in general have low genetic diversity). Rather than saying that the Chugach transients have more genetic diversity than other killer whales, it's more that in terms of genetic diversity in killer whales, taking into consideration that the population is so small and insular, it is surprisingly genetically diverse.
    • Again, bringing to the fore the variety of ecotypes of killer whales, and the different populations of killer whales that make up each ecotype. It expands almost as much as Cultural Lives, in more accessible terms (because Cultural Lives was explaining the concept of pods, clans, populations, ecotypes all at once, which admittedly was a bit hard to keep track of, especially when it came to the residents).
    • There's one quote that is in both Cultural Lives & this book, about how compassion is interpreted into human action and out of other animals':
      • "When a human protects an individual of another species, we call it compassion... If a humpback whale does so, we call it instinct. But sometimes the distinction isn't that clear" (Pittman, quoted from Saulitis, p.203). I think just by having this quote, Saulitis effectively highlights the issue of burden of proof, which Whitehead & Rendell also discuss (in more detail and in so many words), and opens up a forum for discussion without the density present in Cultural Lives. (Whitehead & Rendell also quote this story observed by Robert Pittman & John Durban about the humpbacks that helped the seal out when it was chased off its ice floe by killer whales hunting it down, p.293.) I appreciate both ways of approaching this topic, and I believe all three authors (Saulitis, Whitehead and Rendell) did a wonderful job in vastly different ways of illustrating culture in killer whales. (Of course, Cultural Lives is more expansive with much more breadth, not focusing solely on killer whales, but although Saulitis doesn't explicitly talk about cultures of other species such as the porpoises and humpbacks that get more than a couple mentions throughout this book, I think her descriptions do plenty to bring the question up without so many words.)
    • Not that the tragic story of the Chugach transients wasn't interesting, but I was waiting all throughout more for the point in the book when Saulitis would tell us how she and Craig became partners - there was a point at which I started wondering whether the Craig she mentions at the beginning is the same Craig that comes up in the story, and I even went to the back of the book to see if the last names matched (they did). Silly of me, but I couldn't help but be on the lookout - constant vigilance - in case that information popped up; I couldn't help it.
  5. Sea Change by Frank Viva
    • I picked this up for the cover, and I'm glad I did! The illustrations and odd palette continues throughout the chapters, interacting with and complementing the text. The overall shape of the story is easy enough to guess, but the cheeky narrator makes palpable his unwillingness to go, and the whole dramatic t(w)eenage character gains more depth as we see the world through his eyes. When he has to make a hard choice, betraying the trust of his friend/the girl he's taken with, in order to help her in the best way he knows how, he's taking a step forward, and we feel how heavily this decision weighs down upon him. Beautifully illustrated and sensitively written, I wouldn't mind purchasing this one for my own shelves.
  6. White Oleander by Janet Finch
    • They want to be us. From her mother to her foster mothers, Astrid goes on her journey from childhood to maturity, building up her own identity independent of - or perhaps not independent from so much as separate from - her mother, Ingrid, fusing together elements she has gleaned from each of her homes to become her own person. She is the snake in the garden. Beauty recurs as a theme throughout, as something dangerous for Astrid and those around her who succumb to it - it is a poison for Astrid the way Ingrid's beauty deceives those around her and helps her sculpt her world and impose it upon others. It's a bit heartbreaking to see how the novel begins, bare with simple beauty, three white flowers in a glass vase, hanging their gods upon trees... and then to follow through with the foster homes, to see Astrid grow up and infuse her being with the families she grows up with. Sleeping for the father, a recurring fear. Something she does more than once, and willingly. It's almost as though she seeks them out. Is she looking for a father figure - the one she is, in the end, disgusted by the ordinariness of? - or are those simply her tastes? But she does choose Paul, in the end, who was "more than her boyfriend. He was me". Over her mother, over Oskar Schein. But even as she makes her choice, there is something of the uncertainty of whether she will perhaps waver and sleep with the father (Oskar) again, somehow participate - willingly or otherwise - in the ruin of another family. She will never be free of her mother, in that her mother, along with all her other mothers, has exerted an incredible influence over the person she has become, but White Oleander ends on a hopeful note, despite the bleak picture of her and Paul's shambles of a home, as Astrid is able to mold herself at last.
  7. Stack the Cats by Susie Ghahremani
    • How adorable is this! The illustrations, the cheekiness - six cats prefer... two stacks of three - the CATS. I'd love this as an introduction to counting book, but also for any cat lover.
  8. Are Dolphins Really Smart? The Mammal Behind the Myth by Justin Gregg
    • It's kind of a really weird book in that Gregg is out to debunk all the dolphin myths about their specialness and render them just another animal, effectively taking away some arguments for considering dolphins persons and protecting them. It's a bit humourous the way that he goes on, chapter by chapter, deconstructing the myths and presenting Dolphin, just another animal, stressing the ambiguity found in scientific literature in terms of how "intelligent" these animals are (and thus, implied, how worthy of our protection). In the end, though, Gregg tries to make a different sort of appeal: that we should stop comparing other creatures to humans in determining their value or their worth, and learn to appreciate all the different creatures with which we share the planet in their own right, and for their own sake. That last paragraph probably brought my rating of this book up an entire star.
      • Although it's getting a bit repetitive for me to read, I do appreciate that Gregg outlines the issue of using the term "intelligence" (along with a slew of other terms that are not well-defined even in the literature). In the end, he goes with the definition of intelligence in non-human creatures as a comparison of how closely the animal's behaviour matches with human behaviours. In other words, the more human the animal acts, the more intelligent we suppose it to be. Unfortunately, this strikes me as pretty on point.
    • So I'm just going to be going through my book darts & written notes (I ran out of darts) below:
      • Jumping spiders have huge brain to body ratio, it seems: "jumping spiders, with their eight eyes and brains so big for their body size that they spill over into their legs, seem equally as skilled [at interpreting stimulus from a television screen]" (p.99). I was just reading a Quanta article on spiders and how their webs might be a form of extended cognition: The Thoughts of a Spiderweb. And even though it's been proven to be the wrong way to think about intelligence (even as we struggle to define the concept of intelligence), brain to body size ratio having been one of those factors...
        • So jumping spiders can apparently "hold mental representations when it comes to planning routes and hunting specific prey. The spiders even seem to differentiate among "one", "two" and "many" when confronted with a quantity of prey items that conflicts with the number they initially saw" (Sokol, The Thoughts of a Spiderweb, May 23, 2017). Linked to the article cited in Quanta article to information to which it pertains in quote.
          • I assume this also means they have short-term memory? I haven't read the article I linked to, so I can't actually make this statement with much confidence, but they would have to have the memory of one number in mind, then realize that the number of prey spiders exists once it's out of sight (object-permanence), as well as being able to compare their expectations (if I may refer to it as such) with the reality presented before them. And this would affect their behaviour. Which is pretty cool. If I'm understanding correctly, of course.
      • Pigeons were once trained in a scientific study to recognize a Van Gogh from a Chagall as accurately as college undergraduate students (p.103). I vaguely recall reading this elsewhere - The Thing with Feathers, perhaps? - but it's still funny the second time around. I don't know if it says more about college undergrads or pigeons though.
        • "In a rather peculiar experiment, pigeons were taught to discriminate between good and bad art, and thus might have learned the concept of "beauty"" (p.103, article in endnote). Okay, this I find contention with. There's the issue of what constitutes good/bad in art, as well as whether good necessarily equates with "beautiful", and bad, "ugly". The concept of beauty that was learned is more specifically the concept of beauty held by those adults who sorted out the paintings into the good/bad dichotomy, and it seems to me that the experiment was more enlightening in discovering what made those pieces of art more appealing to the adults by using pigeons to narrow it down to colour and pattern. The sentence as presented in Are Dolphins Really Smart? is a bit misleading, because the author of the actual article it refers to doesn't make quite the same claim - or rather, they do, but they do then go on to qualify what they mean (basically what my quibbles with it are).
          • I'm going to be so incredibly obnoxious here (to Hibbert, as I always am - I can't help making jabs at such a great example of what not to do!) and say, isn't it great when books do proper citations so that you can find where the author found what, and you can actually go and find more information on the original source afterwards if you so choose? Honestly though, while I rarely do go and research more following endnotes and footnotes, here is one of those instances where I'm all about that, and I'm glad that the referenced sources are easy to find. Hurrah for standardization!
    • The way it was presented in The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins, it sounded like a lot more than just "[a] single wild Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphin in Australia... observed hunting for cuttlefish using a peculiar - and perhaps unique - hunting technique that is likely her own devising. After first killing the cuttlefish, she beat the ink out of it, scraped it in the sand to remove the skin and the cuttlebone, and consumed the rest" (p.112).
      • Publication dates might offer some clue: Dolphins (2013), Cultural Lives (2015), the article that is referred to in the endnote in Dolphins (2009). You might think, right? No! They actually refer to the same article in both books! So why was it presented as a more wide-ranging thing in Cultural Lives (even in terms of being isolated within that population of bottlenose dolphins) and referred to here in Dolphins as a single and singular occurrence?
        • This article is open access (hurrah!), so feel free to make your own conclusions. It appears to me that where Gregg chooses to focus on the fact that the article authors only made observations of one dolphin processing cuttlefish this way, Whitehead & Rendell take into consideration that "in addition to [the article authors'] observations, individual bottlenose dolphins feeding at these cuttlefish spawning grounds have been observed by divers in the area to perform the same behavioural sequence (as cited by Finn, Tregenza & Norman, 2009). There have also been observations at surface level of cuttlebones floating up around where pods of dolphins were foraging (ibid.). So I'll have to go with Whitehead & Rendell in their portrayal of events in this case, and wonder a bit as to why Gregg decided to make it sound as though it was really only the one dolphin who was observed - ever - to do this. I understand that Gregg wants to debunk the myth of the amazing human-like dolphin, but this instance is making me question everything else he is presenting throughout the book now. Then again, bias is to be expected, and I should simply be reading with more care than I do.
        • It's actually pretty fascinating as an example of how the same source article can be used to argue two completely different viewpoints: in Dolphins, Gregg capitalizes on the fact that the article authors personally only observed the one dolphin, thus bringing to the fore the ambiguity as to how this dolphin might have learned to do so - "might well have been a result of insight and planning... although trial and error and serendipity cannot be ruled out. Unfortunately, none of these examples can be conclusive evidence of insight and planning insofar" (p.112) because researchers didn't witness the first instance of this behaviour, which, by the way, is a bit of an extreme stance to begin with in my opinion, seeing as it's still not conclusive by any means even if the researchers did witness it; there'd simply be other types of doubts that arise - ignoring that apparently other dolphins were also observed to do so by divers, in addition to which even Finn, Tregenza & Norman suggest that going by the evidence of the cuttlebones floating to the surface in association with pods of dolphins, that the behaviour is likely not limited to the one dolphin; thus Gregg cleanly avoids speculating about the possibility of social learning in this instance. In contrast, Whitehead & Rendell focus on the possibility of social learning as it plays a part in this behaviour, because it seems highly improbable that each dolphin practicing this foraging technique learned it independently of all the other dolphins in the same pod doing the same thing.
        • On the whole, Gregg comes off as much more skeptical regarding dolphins' abilities, downplaying sponging behaviour as well (p.121). I'm pretty sure he does this in an attempt to actively err on the side of caution though, in keeping with the feel of the entire book, so I'm not going to do a comparison between Cultural Lives & Dolphins for sponging.
    • Interestingly, Gregg references the 2001 article published by Whitehead & Rendell about cetacean culture (p.123).
    • I remember learning about what the defining elements of a language are in a psycholinguistics course, and how only human language has been able thus far to satisfy all the points. And while I don't remember how many factors there were, I remember thinking it unfair in that we only know how to judge everything else through a human lens, and so what if other animals don't have language in the same capacity as we do anyways?
      • There's a Michael Tomasello mentioned on p.134 and I'm wondering if it's the same Tomasello that discovered the Somali Golden Mole remains in an owl pellet in The Hunt for the Golden Mole.
      • HUMPBACK WHALES AND BENGALESE FINCHES. Implied in Dolphins to have "been shown to comprehend or produce center-embedding or similar hierarchical syntactic structures" (p.148), although neither of them, nor dolphins, "appear to harness the power of recursion" (p.148).
      • Gregg notes that alarm call repertoires are "pitifully small when compared to humans" (p.149), to which I've got to respond, "Well no shit." They're alarm calls. How many predators could you wish upon a single species that they have to generate as many alarm calls to warn brethren about possible dangers as humans have words to refer to so many other types of information? That being said, even in terms of alarm calls for humans, which I'm not really sure are alarm calls so much as shout-outs to warn others of impending doom, are theoretically limitless.
    • Zipf's Law
      • It made me think of Benford's Law, but I don't think they have any relation in this case, as from what I understand, only Zipf's Law would apply to language utterances. What does Zipf's law actually describe though? It applies to word frequencies, city sizes, and whatever else it applies to - what exactly is it? Unless we can define what Zipf's law describes - what makes the set that Zipf's law applies to the set? - it's a bit difficult to use the fact that dolphin whistles adhere to the law well enough as evidence for natural language in dolphins, which Gregg also notes (p.171).
    • Amazing. There's a National Geographic documentary titled Dolphins: The Dark Side, and I want to watch it. It won't play on the site though - not sure if I'm just in the wrong country?
      • Dolphin aggression: bottlenose dolphins attacking porpoises was not mentioned in Cultural Lives, nor was porpicide, although Whitehead & Rendell do make a mention of the myth of the peaceful dolphin: "Male competition is fierce. There is documented evidence that fights can lead to unconsciousness, so it is entirely possible they could result in fatality. There is also evidence that male dolphins sometimes kill calves, for reasons that are poorly understood" (p.101). While Whitehead & Rendell are much more conservative about why male dolphins may engage in infanticide, Gregg presents it as a reproductive strategy with a clear goal: once the calf is dead, the female dolphin will become receptive to mating within days (p.189).
        • Again, the same article is used (Patterson et al., 1998, linked above). Dolphin aggression towards porpoises is part of the title of the article, although Whitehead & Rendell do not make much note of it, choosing to remain speculative as to why infanticide occurs and focusing instead on other aspects of dolphin behaviours, such as male groups, foraging strategies, communication and play, and the massive oceanic dolphin schools in the dolphin chapter. I suppose this makes sense, though, for the purposes of their book, considering they specifically want to discuss culture and possible evidence for cetacean culture. And if that one article from 1998 is all we have to go off of, which I'm assuming it is (although I haven't done a search into the literature) by dint of the fact that it's the one article in common and the other article Gregg cites is also from 1998 (I was unable to find this article, though the same authors published another article in 2002 on infanticide in bottlenose dolphins), despite both of these books having been published quite recently, then perhaps the evidence isn't as clear as Gregg is making it sound? Scratch that - the Patterson et al. article states outright in the introduction that "the reason(s) for the interactions remain(s) unclear" (Ross & Wilson, 1996, as cited in Patterson et al., 1998), though they do posit as explanations "competition for prey, feeding interference, play or practise fighting, and sexual frustration" (ibid.).
          • The 2002 article repeats the ambiguous findings in terms of the motivations behind infanticide, citing as possibilities "resource limitations, parental manipulation, social pathology, and/or sexual selection" (Dunn, Barco, Pabst & McLellan, 2002), which are not too different from the list Patterson et al. laid out in 1998. In fact, oddly enough, even though the article was published in 2002, all of the evidence was still based off of 1996 & 1997 strandings of bottlenose dolphin calves. I'm starting to wonder whether this isn't actually the article that Gregg is citing, especially since I'm having difficulty finding the 1998 one, but the chances of my inability to find it being due to my own incompetency & lack of access to databases are probably higher than Gregg misciting something, I think.
          • Either way, though, both articles' conclusions are much less conclusive than Gregg's seeming confidence in declaring that the reason behind infanticide in bottlenose dolphins is clear: it's a technique to increase sexual success (p.189). You're making me lose a bit of confidence in your words, Gregg!
    • Now onto something happier: epimeletic behaviour.  I can't help but relate epimeletic behaviour to either kin selection or stupidity as Whitehead & Rendell talk about in terms of byproducts of culture and cultural evolution (pp.256-261). And Gregg also discusses mass strandings, although in terms of altruistic behaviour rather than stupidity: the group refuses to abandon a sick dolphin part of the community or family, choosing to follow them into shallower waters, which are safer to be in than open ocean, resulting in mass strandings (p.205). In fact, they are so giving of themselves that healthy individuals strand themselves again on purpose so as to accompany their sick friends and family.
      • Whitehead & Rendell put it in a rather funnier way: "whales and dolphins sometimes strand themselves alive on shorelines - not just briefly to catch a seal or fish but with no apparent intention of leaving" (p.258). Don't ask me why I think that's mildly hilarious. It just is. I'm not finding the situation funny so much as the way they're put it, of course. Anyway, they detail 3 types of intentional stranding, and the one Gregg describes is either typical or atypical mass stranding. Atypical strandings don't seem to fit the bill though, as these are due to loud noises (read: the ones people started making around the mid-20th c.) that disorient the poor animals. Which leaves typical mass strandings. Although something still strikes me as a little odd about Gregg's description: it doesn't fit in too well with any of the three types of strandings detailed by Whitehead & Rendell. It's a mix of the first one - individual animals that strand, usually involving "sick or injured animals and presumably result[ing] from disorientation, an inability to swim, or a desire for the support of the beach - which fits in with the sick individual part of Gregg's description, coupled with the typical stranding, where the stranded animals are generally perfectly healthy (in Gregg's scenario, presumably there are one or two or at most a few sick or injured individuals within the mostly perfectly healthy group, I'm assuming). Something else doesn't quite fit together: according to Whitehead & Rendell, "the species most likely to be involved in typical mass strandings are matrilineal whales: sperm whales, pilot whales, false killer whales" (p.259), although they allow that oceanic dolphins do so as well, at much less frequent intervals.
        • Here's the encyclopedia article Gregg has in his notes for this part, unfortunately not accessible. From the summary though, it doesn't really talk about mass stranding in the same breath as it does sick or injured dolphins intentionally beaching, which is the first case as listed by Whitehead & Rendell. Perhaps I'm understanding Gregg incorrectly - misinterpreting what he's saying, rather: he only says that dolphins beach in groups, which I'm understanding to mean "mass stranding", which is not necessarily the case... although I'm confused as to why there is no mention of groups of dolphins stranding in Cultural Lives, as I get the feeling Whitehead & Rendell would make a mention of it, given that they're detailing the best they can a comprehensive list of when whales and dolphins strand themselves (p.258). Or at least it sounds like they're not only focusing on what might be "stupid" behaviour in this case so much as explaining different types of strandings. Of course, Whitehead & Rendell do state outright that there are three general types of strandings, which does not purport to capture all the different types, though the way Gregg says it, it sounds as though the group strandings happen often enough that it should fit into one of the three general types or constitute a fourth one. Even more frustrating, Gregg doesn't specify which species of dolphin it is he's talking about. I'm assuming the encyclopedic article he references discusses it at some more length - or I'm hoping so, at least.
      • Continuing on in altruism, Gregg notes that some species of social insects "dedicat[e] & sacrific[e] their lives in an effort to care for and protect their queen, the young, and the colony as a whole" (p.206), but I wonder whether this is truly altruism as we might associate with the word? Are the social insects genetically hardwired to dedicate & sacrifice their lives for the good of the colony, or do they make a choice? Perhaps I'm misinterpreting what is meant by altruism, but Gregg doesn't really define it categorically, so I'm left to my own devices here. Then again, if we get into that line of argument, there's no way to actually test for whether animals are making a choice or not, so it's not a very productive way of looking at altruism.
      • Iguanas group up when young - that sounds adorable. I feel as though the male iguanas protecting the females at the cost of their own lives shouldn't be considered as altruistic behaviour so much as a strategy that leads to reproductive success, so long as the female has mated with the male. Or so long as chances are, if the female is fertilized by the male, she will more likely than not lay eggs fertilized and they will hatch. So I suppose the factors are how likely male iguanas are to run into female iguanas in their natural habitat, and which reproductive strategy would serve them better: dying for the female he has fertilized, or letting the female die and finding another female to mate. Without this information, we can't really draw conclusions about whether it's altruistic behaviour or not, right? And I don't know enough about iguanas to say.
    • Why, asks Gregg, is the peaceful dolphin myth so pervasive despite all observation to the contrary (p.208)? It's a little something called confirmation bias.
While we're on the topic of language, fascinating article that briefly discusses black ASL: What Counts as Standard? on Lithub,

Friday, May 19, 2017

May Flowers

We've got a grand total of 2 tulips in the backyard and 3 in the front, so we've hit our max flower potential this year. Amazing.
(One of the tulips in the back has already been bitten off by some backyard critter or another, though we have no idea why; it just left the flower there, intact, chewed off its stem.)
  1. The Mystery of Darwin's Frog by Marty Crump, illustrated by Steve Jenkins and Edel Rodriguez
    • Beautifully illustrated! For a children's book, I'm quite surprised at how much information there is, though the fact that it's an entire book on one species is probably the reason why. There's also extra information on Darwin's frog and its relative, the Chile Darwin's frog, at the back after the main text, and the body of the book is filled with clear photos and delightful illustrations.
    • It also mentions efforts to save Darwin's frogs by taking them from their environments (where they are threatened by Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis, or Bd, a fungus that affects certain frogs in select areas) and breeding them in captivity in the hopes that one day they will be able to be re-released into the wild.
      • While I do agree that conservation is a boon, and I'm most certainly for protecting endangered animals, especially if they're at risk because of humans, I would really like to see an outline of the considerations taken before deciding to breed species in captivity for reintroduction into the wild. Species come and go, and that's perfectly natural! (Arguably, because humans are a part of nature, it's perfectly natural that our actions shouldn't be considered apart from it at all - but that's not what I'm arguing, and I feel like that's taking it a bit far.) What does interest me is whether Bd is a naturally occurring fungus, and whether they have been a threat to frogs all this time anyway, for example; or at least a small paragraph on why we should be reintroducing a species at all if it isn't fit enough to survive. Perhaps it will be fit enough to survive after the Bd moves on from that environment - who knows? But if it would not survive on its own, should we really be isolating it from that environment, or should nature just run its course and wipe out the species from that part of town? If at a certain point in time in the future there is no longer anywhere for the frogs to live but in the comfort of facilities, will there be any point in keeping them around anymore? (Except for research and education, because every species carries with it information that could help us understand more about nature, and the more isolated the species is from other branches of the phylogenetic tree, the more valuable, arguably, it is for researchers.)
      • Perhaps that's outside of the scope of this book, though, so I'm barking up the wrong tree altogether.
  2. Do Whales Get the Bends? by Tony Rice
    • I didn't finish this book, but not because I didn't enjoy it! Again, there's a surprising amount of information given in response to a number of questions where I had expected a perhaps oversimplified explanation, so I was quite pleasantly surprised. The only reason I didn't read it through was because I don't generally enjoy the way this book is split up. There are definitely interesting questions that I read the answers to (e.g. What is Coriolus force? I'm pretty sure we learned that at some point in school, but honestly, I don't remember it; and of course, the titular "Do whales get the bends?", to which the answer is yes, yes they do, though it appears that it's the accumulated effects that makes whales stiffer in old age rather than an immediate K.O.)
    • There's also a question about giant and colossal squids, and I'm quoting here because I remember reading in another book something along the same lines, which made me very suspicious about what the Palumbis had written in their sperm whale v. giant squid epic. And now it's more than just my own rather suspect memory that I can draw on, but also this book right in front of me:
      • "So what about the stories of life and death struggles between sperm whales and giant squid? Sorry, but that is also nonsense. It seems that no self-respecting sperm whale would come across a giant squid during its deep dives and look at it as anything other than a very tasty and totally harmless morsel to eat. A giant squid finding itself seized in the jaws of a sperm whale might well grab hold of its attacker with its arms and leave impressive scars on its skin with it suckers. But its efforts would be a lost cause, and no matter what the squid did its fate would be to end up in the stomach of the whale!" (p.61-62)
        • So the scars might reveal the desperate death throes of the giant squid rather than its epic battle on equal grounds with its attacker, as the Palumbis would have it.
      • I realize both of these opposing viewpoints come from published books, but I'm going to go with the story of the giant squids being quite easy prey, considering also their "not-very-muscular arms" (p.61) and that I remember reading elsewhere the same thing about the nonsensical epic battles that take place probably only in the imagination.
  3. Juste la Fin du Monde (2016)
    • Xavier Dolan.
    • I'm not sure whether Catherine figured it out - but either way, as she said, it's not her role to say. The family's inability to listen, their nervous rambling, does not give way to Louis, who is unable to interject, to tell them of his death. They are afraid of him, just as he is of them, and as he leaves, the tension having broken and everyone scattered, his mother says they'll be better prepared next time, which is such a sad thing to have to say: they cannot but hold up their expectations of him in their preparations, and in the end it will fall to pieces or, barring that, become a facade. The flashback to Pierre is rudely interrupted, as are all the momentary scenes of happiness among them, by one barbed comment or Louis drifting off, preoccupied. He lies, following his mother's advice, but is unable finally to become their ideal. And as he leaves, his mother is smoking: life goes on, with or without him.
  4. Upside-Down Magic #2 Sticks and Stones & #3 Showing Off by Sarah Mlynowski, Lauren Myracle, and Emily Jenkins
    • This series is getting better and better, and I'm pretty excited for the fourth one to come out, whenever it does! The beginning of each of the follow-ups to the first have been a little boring, to be honest, because it rehashes Nory's situation and sets the scene, but it's great for if you're starting out and can't get your hands on the first book (e.g. all the copies at your local library have been taken out and they've only got the second book available there that instant) so that you can technically start wherever, even though the books definitely build on what happened before.
    • UDM is unapologetically in your face with the "respect and celebrate differences" message, and somehow manages to not make you throw up in disgust at how sweet you would imagine that to be. It's a feat; trust me. Also, apology scenes finally make the cut in the third novel! (I think there might have been one in the second one as well, but the third one was a huge crossing over.) I love that all of the characters are so multi-dimensional and that Nory, who I'm going to confess had just about zero appeal to me at all in the first book, has started to grow and mature. The best friends tack that the authors are taking with Nory & Elliott doesn't really translate so much into the writing though, which is a bit confusing to me because I don't see why Nory & Elliott have to be best friends - nothing in their behaviour suggests a closeness beyond what they each share with their other classmates. In fact, I'd hazard a guess and say Nory's much more attached to Elliott than Elliott is to her (especially considering the novel is written in 3rd person from Nory's POV). Anyway, I'm interested to see whether this is a set-up for something in the future for the series, or simply something they wanted to set down for... no particular purpose.
  5. Why? by Nikolai Popov
    • I waited, and waited, and waited for this picture book to turn it all around, but DAMN. That was unrelenting and incredibly powerful. I almost want to say it was even more powerful than Eve Bunting's Terrible Things because of its paucity of text and lack of explanations - it's all accepted as just what happens - but perhaps it'd be better to simply say that both of them contain a necessary gravity that you can't turn away from, that I feel is also necessary sometimes even in children's literature. The illustrations are graphic and suggestive of even more destruction than what is pictured, and the parallel between the last page and the beginning is hard to miss. The two books would complement each other wonderfully.
  6. The Killer Whale Who Changed the World by Mark Leiren-Young
    • I've watched Blackfish before, so there was a lot here that was not entirely surprising. This would be a great first foray into the world of anti-captivity for orcas, though, and there's plenty of information here on how Greenpeace flourished after taking on the orca cause (after Spong, hired to study Skana, came to realize that orcas were much more intelligent and complex than he had ever known and defected to the other camp after his contract ended).
    • Probably the biggest takeaway for me is that there is some truth to all the stories and the fear that orcas instilled in fishermen and the general public as a whole; according to Bigg, there are two races of orcas: transient and resident. Transient orcas are most likely the cetaceans behind the stories, as they are the ones that eat other mammals, whereas resident orcas eat fish instead - there are more behavioural differences between the two groups that can easily be found in articles online (I just clicked on two of the top articles that popped up from a quick search, so there are plenty more that are available, also for free). Furthermore, Leiren-Young says that these two are distinct enough that they rarely ever mate and reproduce together in the wild, though they are capable of doing so and will do so if forced together in captivity. It seems like it could become a textbook example of one species branching off into two that will in the future no longer be able to reproduce at all or to create fertile offspring, which is pretty fascinating.
  7. Friend or Foe? by John Sobol, illustrated by Dasha Tolstikolva
    • A wonderful practice in changing perspectives and the fluidity of our roles throughout our lives! It also highlights the vague uncertainties of relationships - friend or foe? I'll never know. The story touches on stereotypes (the cat landing on its feet after jumping off, being a cat and all, y'know) while also subverting them altogether (the mouse scares the cat, though the cat is subsequently hired to rid the house of the mouse... of which it is afraid). They switch spots, but their spots don't really change at all. Even as they have switched their places, their roles, the mouse now in the luxurious castle and the cat in its humble home, they do not join hands now having understood the other, having lived in each other's homes. Rather, they both continue eyeing each other from their respective walls and are unable to let go of the Otherness. Add this to the Why? and Terrible Things list.
    • There's also a nod to the family living in the castle being a lesbian couple, which is great!
  8. Rotters by Daniel Kraus
    • I couldn't put this one down once I got started. There's one "you're" where it's supposed to be a "your", but that's really all I've got on it in terms of nitpickiness. Now, for the story. I really enjoyed all the religious references and how it blasphemes all over, as well as the character development, especially at the end when he is actually able to move on from being a Digger. We'll never know whether he's able to blend (back?) into Mere Reality, but the teacher who never gives up on him but is not actually overbearing was great as both Joey's anchor to normality, or at least life outside of the Digger life, as well as being a kind of father figure to the prodigal son. It is he who cries when Joey's fingers are cut off; he who hints he might know what Joey was doing and what he had done to Woody, Celeste and Gottschalk, and despite it all encouraging him to stay; he who helps get him into society.
    • As for how quickly Joey is able to get into digging, physically I don't think it quite works as easily as depicted, but I could be wrong. He doesn't strike me as a particularly fit or athletic boy when he first starts out, and just digging that first hole ought to have destroyed his body for a little bit at least. In addition to which his growth as a Digger struck me as too easy for him to achieve - of course, the main goal wasn't to portray his learning the trade so much, so this is fine.
    • Boggs as a character struck me much more as a specter of sorts, or one of those mythical beasts that might be told of in stories (alternatively, one that might appear in Supernatural), than a person. I suppose that was part of the point, though, to really drive home his inhumanity, the part of him that's a rotter rather than a person. And so as Boggs goes, the community of Diggers too.
  9. The Return by Circa
    • I've never seen a circus performance before, and while this is not quite a circus performance, or at least what one might expect when one says "circus", the acrobatics performed were amazing. The stiffness of the performers' stances and the sudden drops, the body that is no longer one's own to control - all these serve to create the disturbing atmosphere that brought the background theme to the fore. To be honest, if I had never read the program before seeing the show, I might have been pretty lost; I still would have understood the - I want to say ugliness - of contortion - what I'm pretty sure was a dislocated shoulder, possibly more, as well as walking in a semblance of en pointe without the pointe shoes - conveying torturous experiences. Having read the program before going in, it struck me that it seemed rather dismal (or at least, I viewed it in such a way): even returning from a 20-year journey or from the concentration camps, there is either nowhere to return to, or the return isn't quite what was expected, not quite the relief or the idyll dreamed of while away - nothing will ever be the same again.
    • As a whole, I couldn't help but feel there was some disconnect between the performers and the music. Well, that's not quite right. They fed into one another and it made sense, but it was more like I couldn't quite grasp when the music was going to change, when this scene would end and the next begin... I couldn't read it. You know sometimes you can walk into a play or listen to music and you just know, not what's going to happen, exactly, but the shape of events as they will be, so that even if there's going to be a twist somewhere, you still have some sort of unwritten script to follow? I'm not sure if it's simply the unpredictability of The Return or if it's because I'm unfamiliar with both circus performances and opera, but there was definitely no way I could zone out for even a second, because I had no bearings. (Not a bad thing, to be made to focus. Not that I don't usually focus, so much as I think I do rely to some extent on heuristics, so that I know how to watch the play, or listen to music, if that makes sense.)
      • Why were the changes in music when they were? From the discordant music to the singing, I couldn't make out what the changes signified, exactly. Unfortunately, I didn't get to stay for the post-show talkback, but I think it would have helped clear things up a little bit. Perhaps the unpredictability is part of the show.
    • There was also this odd feeling of the performers going through their actions, but again, in a disjointed fashion. There were routines that flowed into one another, and others that ended almost as abruptly as they began, and as parts they make sense, but once you join them all together, it was like flickering between different stories (I'm afraid I can't identify who's who since I couldn't see faces so well), first this pair; then the acrobat whose body betrays her, convulsing and leading her this way and that; the women hanging, balancing on edges so as not to fall; the men. Once you read them all separately to combine into a whole, it makes sense, but trying to read into The Return The Odyssey was rather fruitless, especially as I'm unfamiliar with Il Ritorno d'Ulisse in Patria, the opera that inspired The Return (and thus unfamiliar with the songs).
  10. Russell Howard at The Royal
  11. Triangle by Mac Barnett, illustrated by Jon Klassen
    • What a duo. What a duo. Both the Triangle & Square as well as Barnett & Klassen. The book drags on for a bit longer than I expected, with a lot of movement scenes, although it was a nice save at the very end. Not as exciting as Sam and Dave Dig a Hole, but I think the target audience of this one might actually be a bit... younger? I don't even know, honestly. The slow pace is an interesting change, though it's something I do expect from both Barnett and Klassen (more so Klassen).
  12. McToad Mows Tiny Island by Tom Angleberger, illustrated by John Hendrix
    • Wow. So much work for one round on the lawnmower (almost literally just rotating on the spot in the middle of the island)! It's hilarious and ridiculous and makes you appreciate the little things in life (or perhaps not so little) that you enjoy, and demonstrates clearly how you shouldn't care how ridiculous it appears so long as you like what you're doing.
  13. Telephone by Mac Barnett and Jen Corace
    • The look Owl gives Peter is just priceless. Also, "he's too young to end up as somebody's dinner!" All the different birds have somewhat unpredictable personalities that keep you guessing and on your toes - what a gem.
  14. A Greyhound, a Groundhog by Emily Jenkins, illustrated by Chris Appelhans
    • I feel as though the rhythm, or perhaps the choice of some of the words, of the tongue-twisting could have been better, although I appreciate the experience. It's a very fun book to read aloud, and the illustrations are adorable!
  15. Wolf in the Snow by Matthew Cordell
    • Oooh! I love that it references Little Red Riding Hood without being a retelling of it, as well as helping redeem the wolves in children's literature. I'm not sure if it also has a slight nod to Julie of the Wolves, as I haven't read that one.
  16. The Rooster Who Would Not Be Quiet! by Carmen Agra Deedy and Eugene Yelchin
    • Unexpectedly political. I mean, I knew it was going to be because I read something about it (I think it was a review, but I don't remember where), but it still surprised me when I read it. It's a bit stiff, the writing, and you know what's going to happen, but it's an important theme - having the will to fight against your oppressors and stand up for what you think is right - with bright colours contrasted against the plot.
  17. Dragon was Terrible by Kelly DiPuccio, illustrated by Greg Pizzoli
    • Cute. And I guess it teaches children that force and violence don't solve everything.
  18. Gaston by Kelly DiPuccio illustrated by Christian Robinson
    • "Well... this is awkward." A heartwarming and absolutely adorable book that deals with growing up as an adopted child, though in this case it's quite inadvertent. And how the bonds you form with those you grow up or spend time with cannot be replaced so easily.
  19. Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi
    • This is a modern-day fairytale, complete with absent mothers, evil stepmothers, black-and-white judgments, a prince charming... except Oyeyemi turns everything on its head and questions it all. What a delightful read! I'm still kind of processing how to write about it, so this will have to be it for now. Definitely something I would recommend though.
Because the next one is going to have a pretty huge section all to itself (The Cultural Lives of  Whales and Dolphins by Hal Whitehead and Luke Rendell), I'm cutting it off here for now.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Burnt Brioche Dress

elsebeth lavold eucool
Stretched vertically, but shaping still falls within acceptable range - huzzah!

According to my ravelry project page, this dress has been in the works since 2015, which sounds about right to me; it certainly feels like it's been forever or so. Technically, this version of the dress has only been in the works since October 2016, and I've had projects on and off between stints of knitting this up, so once I got the math figured out, it came together pretty nicely (if I do say so myself) and without too much fuss. It has gone through a couple of false starts though, from two bottom-ups to working out the issues with the CO and raglan shaping (see below), and I'm very pleasantly surprised at how well this yarn has held up to so many frogs! Blocking itself took 2 days to finish because of the torrential and not-so-torrential downpours, with the humidity that comes of those, so fortunately for me, it dried out just in time for the one sunny day of the projected week! (I thought April was supposed to be the rainy month and May was supposed to be sunshine, lollipops flowers, and rainbows. April showers bring May flowers, or so I thought it was supposed to go.)

elsbeth lavold eucool
Side-split hem.

Onto the details:

  1. Top-down. The CO took me 3 or 4 tries to get right, because the regular brioche CO looked much too loose to me, in that it looked really sloppy. In addition to this, I had calculated a neck size that was a smidgen too small the first two times, I think.
  2. Raglan sleeve shaping to get the sleeveless dress, because I really like the look of it. This part took two tries, from ripping out all the way back to the base of the neck to the end of the raglan shaping. After I got the correct shape, I BO the raglan "sleeve" stitches and split up the front and back, continuing down flat before doing quick armhole shaping and reconnecting to knit the body in the round.
  3. Shaping spread out between the center back-ish area and the sides (for the front). These come down a little lower than I had originally knit them, because it stretched out a bit during blocking, but thankfully they still fit within the right areas or so. I'm eternally grateful I don't have to rip back and reknit because they shifted downwards.
  4. The original length was actually the slit starting high/mid thigh and the dress ending just below the knee, so the vertical stretch dragged the entire dress down to mid-calf area. This also worked out (and I kind of planned for this eventuality also, stopping below the knees so I'd be happy if it stayed there or if it stretched down) - hurrah! I was worried I'd have to kitchener an inch or two from where I started the slit, but because it stretched out, it saved me a bit of work there.
  5. I reinforced all - I might have missed one or two raglan edges though... - of the potentially weak spots where I split to knit straight or reconnected for in-the-round. Both split hem areas have been sewn together, as have the AHs and especially the one raglan point that was particularly weakly connected (I think it was just the nature of the construction that that specific connection was going to be a bit more tenuous than the rest of them, but I probably could have done something to avoid that to begin with, like doing a k2tog or something). It doesn't feel like it's going to fall apart anywhere, so I'm going to be happy with that until it does.
  6. I probably should have foreseen this, but it's a bit see-through, which I'm going to say was unavoidable: knitting at a tighter gauge would have destroyed me physically and emotionally, and I'm not sure whether the fabric would have been too stiff if I went down a needle size besides.

elsbeth lavold eucool
I'm bffs with my wall. Doing Fusion Dance with it, DBZ style.
All in all, I'm pretty pleased with how this turned out! I'm thinking of writing up the pattern for this, as has been the plan for the past three years, but there's no projected timeline whatsoever. I'm coming to realize that setting myself these deadlines is an exercise in futility. Who knows? I might even be more motivated to finish it if I'm not forcing it on myself.

Monday, May 1, 2017

April, Take 2.

Because I've already commented a bit on some of the below in my previous roundup, I'm just going to add to that below:
  1. The Extreme Life of the Sea by Stephen R. Palumbi & Anthony R. Palumbi
    • So remember how I said that the Palumbis address the formulaic output that is marine life books? THEY DO IT TOO.
    • I'm afraid my reading a couple of other general marine critter books is colouring my perspective, but I can't help but feel that, once you've read one of them, you've read them all - which is definitely not true, and I know it! It's just that there's so much information in all the books that overlaps to a great extent, even if not in the particulars (only this one talked about why flying fish, dolphins, and whales propel themselves out of the water sometimes and under what conditions they do so - when it's more energy-efficient, because water produces way more drag, dolphins generally jump out of water only after they reach a certain speed - for example), that if I'm not reading these books in one- or two-day spurts, it's hard to keep all the information separate in my mind. I did learn some new things from this slim book, and I would definitely still recommend it, but if anyone's thinking about making the rounds like I did/am doing with the general ocean life books, I would probably tell you to read one, maybe two, then move onto whatever more specific areas you're interested in. Spirals in Time was an absolute delight, and I would love to learn more about octopuses and squid (though I've gone through that phase before, too, my local library doesn't have too many books on either that sufficiently sated my curiosity - to be more specific, the one octopus book was so poorly written I didn't finish it, and the other remaining octopus book was well written but not as informative as I would have liked)
  2. The Penelopiad play, directed by Sue Miner featuring the George Brown School of Performing Arts
    • Incredible! I have to say, the actresses did a wonderful job, and the rhythmic thumping, chanting, and singing by the chorus was very well done.
    • I have seen another performance of The Penelopiad by Nightwood Theatre before, and unfortunately I couldn't help but compare against what I had already seen, because I was completely stunned to the core after watching that, whatever snippets of the songs I could remember having stayed with me since then. The venues are completely different, and I'm sure the budgets were as well, so I feel it isn't exactly fair to compare them on those grounds, and perhaps the ages & experience of the actresses made the performance by Nightwood Theatre much more engaging to me as a whole, especially in the scenes where they play male roles, as well as in how Penelope was portrayed as being much more wry and mature than in this performance. The dry wit of Penelope this time around came across as much more... sweet, or passive aggressive, rather than deadpan, I suppose.
    • However, I appreciated the apparent youth of the maids (and Penelope also!) - physically and in their thoughts, their childlike hopes of being rescued - as that just made everything more harrowing: the rape (and Penelope's inability to stop it); their silencing even as they tried to speak up and how Telemachus, upon hearing their clamouring, was swayed into doubt, only to ultimately listen to his father's authority to kill them without hearing them out (in addition to Penelope's silencing by Odysseus, whose first instruction to Eurycleia is to make Penelope a strong sleeping drought, and doesn't stop first to listen to Penelope's side of affairs at all before setting about fixing the real and perceived issues - the suitors and the maids respectively - through violence); and their regrets and vengeance.
    • There were certainly things I didn't really remember having happened that I noticed this time around: did Penelope ever come clean to Odysseus about the maids doing all that they did for Penelope and Odysseus? Did Odysseus really reveal himself to his son first? So is Laertes still alive throughout, or is Penelope weaving his death shroud before he has even perished, as the last filial act? (If he's still alive, why doesn't he show back up?)
    • In terms of the songs: these had a completely different melody, and struck me on the whole as being much heavier, building up voice by voice until it became so loud it was anxious before suddenly - a deafening silence. At other times, layer on layer the whispers added up, giving the feeling of girls chatting in the background, or spirits wafting about. From what I remember, or at least the feeling I got from Nightwood's renditions, they were much more melodic, highlighting the melancholy and quiet, or at least the behind-the-scenes suffering. Personally I enjoyed Nightwood's songs more, but that might just be because I saw them first; George Brown enacted a very powerful interpretation of the play, and I'm glad I went to go see it!
  3. Super Suckers by James A. Cosgrove & Neil McDaniel
    • Following up on what I said above, it turns out I actually had borrowed a newer book that introduces readers to octopuses/octopodes primarily while also touching on squids and other relatives. Cosgrove and McDaniel relate the information first and foremost to the Giant Pacific Octopus, but I think this slim volume is a pretty good general overview of octopuses in general. It leaves a lot of questions unanswered only because they're not really addressed outright (e.g. do all male octopuses undergo senescence after mating, or is it specific to certain species of octopus? I'm pretty sure from what I've read that it applies to all octopuses, but I don't think it's made 100% clear here; different species of octopus have different mating behaviours and rituals, so do they also have different brooding behaviours, or do all female octopuses stay in their dens until death (or if their death happens prior to the hatching, then dying outside of the den), taking care of their eggs? And do all octopuses make strings of their eggs in the same fashion as the Giant Pacific Octopus, or do they employ different methods of hanging their eggs or otherwise brooding? I think I read something about an octopus that attaches her eggs to her body, but I'm not certain about my memory on this point). As an introductory text, it's easy to understand and covers quite a bit of ground, including lots of anecdotes, though it reads somewhat like a textbook for elementary school at times (which keeps it very accessible, while not sounding too much like they're talking down to you to educate you).
    • Where this book really shines is in the copious amounts of photographs! And the thick, glossy paper they use for the entire book make the quality of the photographs pop, so I'd say it was well worth the investment. The section where they detailed the eggs in different stages, including the hatching stage with one already hatched and another hatching, were an absolute delight!
  4. On a Beam of Light: A Story of Albert Einstein by Jennifer Berne, illustrated by Vladimir Radunsky
    • Little details make the story and bring Albert Einstein to life, not only as a great scientist, but also as a person. The style of illustration, reminiscent of children's drawings, or crayon drawings, matched quite well with the text and with the character of Albert Einstein that is portrayed in this book.
    • The two pages of extra information about Einstein that couldn't be fit into the story, but are also important personality traits and ideas were a nice touch, as was the list of a few of the more interesting biographies of and books about Einstein and his ideas that the author had read while researching for this book. I also quite enjoyed the endpages, featuring his favourite things.
  5. Terrible Things: An Allegory of the Holocaust by Eve Bunting, illustrated by Stephen Gammell
    • A sober and dark story where the little white rabbit's confusion and indignation amounted to nothing because he learned to keep quiet, to become complicit in the murderous rages of the Terrible Things. The pencil drawings with their sensitive strokes emphasize the confusion of the rabbit and give a sense of foreboding throughout: and then there was one.
  6. The Purple Balloon by Chris Raschka
    • I wanted so much to like this, but I suspect it's mostly because I'm not the target audience, especially in terms of age. There is a helpful guide at the back after the story that teaches young children how to make their friends and family that are suffering feel better, to ease their impending deaths, and the story in the Note before the story sets it off to a good start. It's a bit too simple and straightforward for me, though I can appreciate the space it fills in children's books.
  7. Six Dots: A Story of Young Louis Braille by Jen Bryant, illustrated by Boris Kulikov
    • Quite in-depth story of Louis Braille the person, though it never approached being overwhelming. There is even more information after the story about Louis Braille and the author's motivations for writing this book, along with an FAQ about his invention, Braille.
    • The drawings were a perfect complement to the story, especially the pages portraying his imagination - the way he "saw" the world - and all the activities blending into each other, as when the piano keys and the leather for making slippers are arranged side by side in a book-shaped cavity on the page. The empty books, Braille's despair at finally getting to read the giant book only to discover it fell way short of his expectations, his solitary finessing of his own system, and finally his triumph and realization of his childhood dream (to be like his father) were told in compelling fashion, made all the more compelling by the constant foreshadowing to his young death by lung disease.
  8. My Year of Meats by Ruth Ozeki
    • Ozeki has a gift for weaving together separate but intertwined stories, and this is no exception: despite having no direct interaction for most of the novel, Jane and Akiko exist in such a way to complement each others' situations perfectly. Connected both by Akiko's husband through the show as well as through their mutual appreciation of Shonagon's The Pillow Book, these two women go through similar experiences in completely different form. It was obvious right when Jane & Sloan ditched the condom that Jane was going to get pregnant, and even more evident that Jane was going to miscarry rather than abort (but either way that she wouldn't get to keep the baby), but Ozeki made these foregone conclusions interesting in their own right by adding depth to Jane's character and having her connect with her mother in a way they were unable to prior to this. Akiko's radiant pregnancy signalling her new life and agency - her refusal to accept things as they were and stand up for what she wanted - was also a fitting end (or beginning?), her barrenness before reflecting her state of living.
    • Jane's realization that Suzuki and Oh aren't the caricatures that she had made them out to be at the beginning was also quite well done, in that their comradeship and subsequent loyalty to one another - joined in their quest for a better show rather than promotion of BEEF-EX - was quite touching, especially once Jane reveals her pregnancy. Most of the characters in this novel mature and become more fully developed throughout the story, and it's a joyous occasion indeed when Akiko finally packs her bags and leaves the apartment that she has cleaned and left spotless for "John"'s return. Even more so when she is able to start writing a list to "John", of all the things about him that are detestable, all the reasons why she left - contrasted against the long-suffering and listless Akiko who was unable to create satisfactory lists in Shonagon's fashion, it's a transformation that, though sudden in terms of events, has been a long time coming.
    • Cultural differences. They are highlighted throughout, by Jane who saddles both countries and in contrasting Akiko to all of the American wives, but it never felt like Ozeki was presenting Japanese culture on the one hand v. American on the other: grey areas and issues are explored in both settings, and the focus on each of these people as individuals rather than as "American" v. "Japanese", even as Ozeki fuses each character with traits respective to their cultures, was well handled. None of the characters descended into stereotypes (except for maybe "John"), and although the novel is a critique of the meat industry, it never forces its morals down your throat.
    • I was blown away by A Tale for the Time Being, and My Year of Meats didn't disappoint, so I'm looking forward to reading whatever else Ozeki has written!
  9. Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi, illustrated by Quentin Gréban
    • This version has obviously been edited the heck out of, in comparison to The Adventures of Pinocchio that I read earlier this month. Many of the (admittedly superfluous) details have been removed, but there was at least one too many details removed: in chapter 17, where the Blue Fairy saves Pinocchio and gives him medicine for his life-endangering fever, the chapter synopsis mentions Pinocchio accepting the sugar but not the medicine, and yet the sugar is conspicuously missing from the actual text. Many of the other details in this edition try to portray Pinocchio in a better light, I think, so that the reader will only think him mischievous or at most impetuous, instead of the impression he makes in the The Adventures of Pinocchio, which is quite a bit worse and makes one wonder if it was such a good idea turning him into a real boy after all. I mean, it's hard to twist the Pinocchio story (without changing it too much) such that he appears to deserve his reward at the end, I think.
    • These watercolour illustrations are gorgeous! Pinocchio is expressive and rather adorable, and the watercolour lends itself beautifully to rendering the tempestuous skies and seas. I especially enjoyed the Pinocchio head endpapers, which look somewhat like a study in drawing Pinocchio from different angles.
    • Does nobody else find it odd that Geppetto plays such a small role in the story? He disappears for a good chunk of it before we even remember him again! And then once he's been found and Pinocchio saves him, the Blue Fairy works her magic to reward Pinocchio for his hard work... and yet the Blue Fairy and Geppetto never meet!
    • There was one formatting error on page 63 where the words extended to the page number also.
  10. Get Out (2017)
    • There's a sense that the movie is trying to be a space to explore white guilt - or that awkwardness that arises of the moment you recognize race in a certain situation and can't erase it from mind even if it plays no part at the time - in a weird way, and I'm left with mixed feelings about the movie as a result. It's as though it's trying to assuage white guilt in the most egregious of ways; in a way, by only taking black people because of the advantages that come with their genetic makeup (except avoiding the whole having to grow up as a black person in America thing - y'know), like "hey, we're admitting you're genetically superior, so at least let us take over your body - we're entitled to that, amirite?"
      • So I read a couple of articles about the movie, and rather than white guilt, it's white racial innocence that's getting the spotlight here: the movie is tearing apart the veneer of a post-racial America and destroying the delusion that is white innocence ("What racism? I'm no racist! Race doesn't even matter anymore" type of (wishful) thinking).
    • In terms of the plot and how it was directed, everything was pretty brilliant. The jump scares were definitely frightening (everyone in the theatre was losing their shit at the right times, all at the same times), and I really enjoyed the use of the hit-and-run throughout the movie, in the way that the memory of Chris' mom dying in a hit-and-run influences his decisions throughout (e.g. stopping for the deer, trying to save Georgina after he hits her with the car).
    • The police car scenes were also very strong: the first when the officer allows Rose's backtalk and eventually even acquiesces (where Chris on the other hand has evidently experienced it often enough to just go along with it); and the second at the end, where you almost expect Chris to be shot by whoever's in the vehicle because he's black and there are a bodies on the ground, and maybe he'll die and Rose will receive help and that would be a very clear critique on racism in America - perhaps too clear, considering the rest of the movie.
    • I get the actual reason Rose talked back to the officer like that when they hit the deer now! It was so that there would be no trace of Chris when he goes missing! It's odd that the blood was on the passenger side though, considering the deer came over from the driver's side.
  11. Upside-Down Magic by Sarah Mlynowski, Lauren Myracle and Emily Jenkins
    • Yeah, I know. I'm trying to expand the breadth of my reading here. It's pretty much everything you'd expect from the description on the inside flap: a feel-good "be true to yourself!" type of book. The premise is pretty cute (a girl who can't quite control her magical powers and ends up turning into a composite of different animals whenever she tries to turn into something, e.g. a dragon kitten, a beaver kitten, etc., being sent to a class for others like her who can't control their powers), and I can see the series being attractive to young readers. However. I feel as though there was an apology that was notably absent from the text, that I also felt was necessary: when Nory told Pepper to watch out for Pepper at the beginning, and proceeded to feel bad about it but never apologize for it. Learning how to apologize is important, especially when it's an apology that you've missed your chance to give, and that's something that I think should have been given some more attention. She agonizes over it (and over being ostracized), yes, but - and I don't mean to say she should suffer because she was mean, and that it all balances it out eventually - she doesn't make up for what she said to Pepper. Her combining powers with Elliott to save Andre was a nice end, yeah, but that really only makes up for the part where they wanted to leave the class because they were thinking normal > different.
    • I'm also really hoping they address Nory's family a bit more down the road. As it is, Nory kind of realizes (as Elliott realizes about his Sparky friends) that her family's insistence on her being normal isn't the best environment for her, and that they haven't really been there for her, but they never really have a confrontation. I'm sure that Nory's going to save her father at some point in the future with her powers and he'll have to begrudgingly accept her, but I'd like for the brother and sister to start to see things their own way independently of their father before that happens.
  12. The Hunt for the Golden Mole by Richard Girling
    • Girling kind of takes the reader along on his hunt for the Somali golden mole, and I appreciate his honesty about his ignorance or his naivety, but to have the same line repeated again, about how great minds have traveled the road before him already, but he's going to do it again anyway, was a bit much. I'm being picky here, but it really makes me wonder about the editing or advance reading process whenever I see that kind of repetition within a book. I know I repeat a lot of words or sentence structures, or reuse the way I introduce certain parts of my little reviews, but it's a bit different when it comes to a published book, right? Now, onto the contents themselves.
    • It's most definitely not a straightforward search for the mole, and Girling makes no attempt to be doing so as he meanders here and there, dithering about whether to contact someone who might have information or not (because if he contacts them and it's a dead end, his search is effectively done). It's actually quite interesting reading about Ol Pejeto and how the cattle can coexist with its predators with a bit of help from their owners, to the benefit of everyone involved. The numbers on the ivory and rhino horn trade were baffling, as you'd think that even poachers would understand that their own trade isn't sustainable the way they do it, and that they're going to be out of a living soon enough if things continue on this way.
      • Climax at the end of getting in touch with the professor and seeing the bones from the owl pellet was... as expected. Nothing more, nothing less. If anything, his description of Alberto Simonetta was probably one of my favourite parts!
    • The photograph of the pseudo-golden mole in England could have been improved on a lot. As it is, there is so much grey (it features a brown and a marmalade-coloured mole on what I am assuming is green grass, so no surprise if it's grey on grey on grey in a black and white picture) that having the photo there doesn't add much to your reading. That goes for pretty much all the photos included: I feel like some editing to maybe add some contrast would have benefited them all. As colour photos, I'm sure they're fine, but translated into b&w, it gets really muddy.
    • Humans are not the only creatures who inflict self-harm, nor do they have monopoly over suicide. Animals do it too. (And if you're interested in the topic, there are plenty more articles discussing stress and self-harm and self-mutilation in animals.) Now, I haven't read the article in full, and I'm not sure whether animals do this in their natural environments, lacking human stressors. And unfortunately I don't remember enough from where I read it the last time (in class? in one of the other animal books?) to recall whether that was the case or not. But humans are not alone in deliberately inflicting self-harm.
    • Do rats have a worse rep than the wolf in children's literature? Girling says the rat wears a blacker hood, but I'm not really too sure about that... I mean, both have similarly horrible reputations that colour both our language as well as general perceptions of the animals themselves, but I think they serve different enough types of roles that they can both be treated with an equal amount of disgust, hatred, and fear. I'd like to know if Girling's actually right about this, though.
Working on:
  1. Are You My Mother? by Alison Bechdel
    • It only recently came to my attention that the Bechdel test is by this same Alison Bechdel. A quick scan through the first page of 2017 movies appears heartening: there are quite a number of green ticks! About as many as, if not slightly more than, red Xs!
  2. Reinventing Gravity by John F. Moffat