Unreal Nature

April 25, 2009

Birds Grow on Trees

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:56 am

… in the early 1960s, we were as blind as the moles in a fable by the Czech immunologist and poet Miroslav Holub: his poem ‘Brief reflection on cats growing in trees’ imagines the moles trying to make sense of the world. Lookouts emerged at different times of day to report on the way things were above ground. The first scout saw a bird on a tree: ‘birds grow on trees’, he reported; the second found mewing cats in the branches: ‘cats grow on trees, not birds.’ The conflict worried one of the elders so, up he went:

By then it was night and all was pitch-black.

Both schools are mistaken, the venerable mole declared.
      Birds and cats are optical illusions produced
      by the refraction of light. In fact, things above

Were the same as below, only the clay was less dense and
      the upper roots of the trees were whispering something,
      but only a little.

‘Things above were the same as things below’, or vice versa in our case. We had only our knowledge of chemistry at the bottom and the world of visible objects at the top to guide us. When we look around we can see only such objects as can be seen with eyes like ours. We make use of materials that we can grasp and manipulate to make objects on a scale that suits creatures around 1.5 – 1.8 m tall. We may not like to think of ourselves as being as cramped in our perception as the moles, but on the scale of the universe, from quarks to galaxies, we are. In the scale of things, we are trillions of times larger than the smallest things known, evanescent subatomic particles, and trillions of times smaller than the largest cosmological objects known.

That and all the rest of today’s quotes are from The Gecko’s Foot: Bio-inspiration: Engineering New Materials from Nature by Peter Forbes (2005).

… The nanoworld is like a complex jigsaw puzzle in three dimensions. We try to piece it together by viewing it with different magnifications and techniques. Behind the picture we can see with the unaided eye, there is another picture we have to zoom in on with the light microscope; behind that is a more detailed picture that we need the electron microscope to see; beyond that is the picture revealed by X-rays; and there are new types of microscope such as the atomic tunnelling microscope, that all add information to the puzzle. To add to this, our knowledge of chemistry also sheds light on the three-dimensional structure. By combining all the information, we come to a picture that begins to approach completeness.

… While the human engineer instinctively reaches for metals to heat and beat into shape, nature goes for proteins that are grown inside living cells at body temperature. A single protein molecule is made from hundreds to thousands of smaller component molecules, virtually all of which have to be in precisely the right place for the protein to work. A protein molecule is first made as a long chain and then it folds up precisely into a three dimensional ball, like a piece of wet origami.

… To understand why the realm of bio-inspiration is such a terra incognita, something really new under the sun, we need to look at the two currents of 20th-century science. So powerful were these two prongs of attack that many people were dazzled into thinking that they revealed all we needed to know about the material world. These sciences were nuclear physics and molecular biology. Both ignored the multiplicity of the natural world — the several million species of living creatures (some estimates go as high as 30 millionor more), all with different shapes, sizes, habits and curious adaptations; the more than 24 million known chemical combinations of the 92 natural elements; the architecture of matter in the honeycombs of the beehive, the fantastic filigree forms of the radiolarians of the ocean, and the interlocking spirals of a sunflower head. These were cast aside in the search for the ultimate, universal components and principles of matter (physics) and the chemical unit and mechanism of genetic inheritance in biology.

The idea behind these quests was that if successful, they would somehow explain everything else. And, of course, they were successful. Nuclear physics uncovered the unexpected power of nuclear forces and molecular biology determined the mechanism of inheritance; a precise sequence that has chemical form (the DNA molecule) but which functions as a code for the synthesis of proteins, nature’s prime functional substances.

But, dramatically brilliant as these sciences were, they left enormous gaps. They did not begin to explain complex forms of nature, nor did they determine the composition of these forms. What the physics and biology obscured was the fact that to create functioning organs, the fundamental building blocks of atoms and molecules have to be synthesized into large structures whose properties cannot really be explained by a knowledge of which molecules compose them.

… Across the wide range of technologies covered in this book there is one overriding message: shape, shape, shape. At every size,from atoms to cabledomes, we see that shapes can do things we could hardly have expected.

… it is the patterns these structures make in space rather than what they are made from that creates the effect. Galileo’s intuition, from the birth of modern science in the 17th century, that the book of nature is written in circles and squares and triangles, has been vindicated, although some of the shapes are far more complicated than he could ever have foreseen.

“There is, it would seem, in the dimensional scale of the world a kind of delicate meeting place between imagination and knowledge, a point arrived at by diminishing large things and enlarging small ones, that is intrinsically artistic.”
— from Speak, Memory by Vladimir Nabokov (quoted within the Gecko’s Foot)

The kernel of what I’m getting at with all of the above is summed up in this one sentence, “What the physics and biology obscured was the fact that to create functioning organs, the fundamental building blocks of atoms and molecules have to be synthesized into large structures whose properties cannot really be explained by a knowledge of which molecules compose them.” In many cases, the whole is greater (and entirely unexplained by) than sum of the parts.



April 24, 2009


Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 6:42 am

… Though the brain feels more often like a filing drawer than a palace, if I ask myself in what room or folder does the beautiful wild mallard reside, and if I follow the synaptic map, I do indeed find other events lodged in the same constellation. Every image in this place is skewed, positioned at a rakish angle, like the proverbial lampshade, spotted by a mix of the visceral, curious lusty feeling. The disordered angles cause discomfort, bordering on pain.

… Hélène Cixous writes in the Ou l’art de l’innocence: Life and writing cannot be separated; aesthetics and ethics are closely bound . . . I think that the truth of literature turns on the struggle between the value of life and the value of writing . . . Innocence is when, after a work of indescribable mathematicity, by dint of living life at extremely close quarters, and of weighting — querying every scruple living, and of weighing every result of thinking and rethinking and sublimating and replunging into the struggle, and shuffling and sifting, and dis and entangling every step of life, a sincerity hatches to a single white dreamy petal. It is the simplicity at the end of all chemistries. I once believed, in the manner of Cixous and Yeats, that a poem was a single white dreamy petal. I once believed there was one perfect version of a poem and the writer would know when s/he had reached that draft, and still, in going back to the earlier drafts of poems, I find there is often another truth I have had to leave behind.

… We map our way through the process poem’s constellation and yet, like memory and pain, part of it smokes the body, and, like smoke, escapes. “By the Nape” started as a sensate experience, the pleasure of being swallowed by the texture and tincture of the unnameable. The senses demanded something from memory — and by chance, it became the ducks. The reader found the language and description of the natural world poeticized and asked for a human corollary. So began the poem’s journey.

In the gap between what one wants to say (or what one perceives there is to say) and what one can say (what is sayable) words provide for a collaboration and a desertion. We delight in our sensuous involvement with the materials of language, we long to join words to the world — to close the gap between ourselves and things, and we suffer from doubt and anxiety as to our capacity to do so because of the limits of language. While failing in an attempt to match the world, we discover structure, distinction, the integrity and separateness of things. So writes Lyn Hejinian in “The Rejection of Closure.”

There was a fifth observation that did indeed float through, but free of the constellation. Occasionally I wake in the dark and do not know what a human being is, cannot remember my name, my home, the room. A body warms next to mine, my husband’s, and I do not know him, though we have been together for twenty years. There is something both discomforting and liberating about this discarnate state. The fifth observation, though only smoke in the body, begins to articulate and extend itself. Sometimes I don’t know who I am — / my age, my sex, my species — / only that I am an animal who will love / and die . . . The brittle grasses, the glossy bridal plumage of the drake, the curious sexuality of human exchange all invoked by one small truth. Not even four lines. Poetry enlightens the maker in its making, by the way it takes over, offering words, forms, rhetorical variations, it lives in the palace of the brain, and the conference of the world, and always it escapes.

— from an essay, The Autumn Courtship of Surface-Feeding Ducks, by Sandra Alcosser in Introspections: American Poets on One of Their Own Poems, eds. Robert Pack and Jay Parini



April 23, 2009

The Un-Bear-Able Frightness of Bears

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:36 am

(I know, I know; the road to hell is paved with bad puns . . . )


Day in day out I preach to you about aesthetics, art, truth, deep meaning, intent . . . and what do I give you? A picture with a big green arrow pointing to a bear ass.

I can explain.

First, I wasn’t packing 300mm heat. All I had was my little G10 squirt gun. Second, I will admit that while on my hike (yesterday afternoon), I was (as usual), daydreaming. Not paying attention. So when it dawned on me that what was being transmitted via my eyes to my brain was a very large female bear in perfect profile clambering up a tree with her head turned toward me and arms spread wide embracing the tree — a perfect picture if ever there was one — my reaction was . . . Huh?

But after that, it wasn’t my fault. I had to turn on the G10. It makes this snivelly little whining noise as it’s bestirring itself. And it seems to go even slower if you press the shutter release repeatedly before its fully on as I was doing. Meanwhile, the mother bear had reversed direction, rotated around to the back of the tree and was, shortly, gone. Where, I didn’t know which made me a little uneasy. I was also trying to figure out where the dog was. Was the bear going after the dog? Was she about to go after me? Or had she retreated to a safe distance once her cubs were safely up the tree  as black bears are supposed to do?

Also, the noise that she was making had an adverse effect on my concentration. I think she was communicating with the cubs not fussing at me, but whatever it was it didn’t sound friendly. She wasn’t growling — it was a huffing or grunting. Deep, loud, abrupt. Then there was all that clawing, ripping of tree bark, and the heavy thump when she hit the ground. Or, even worse, the silence that followed. It was distracting.

I wasn’t as close as the above might make it seem. Here’s the full frame:


Here are some subsequent shots of just the cubs. The mother had descended and I don’t know where she was at this point.




I can only recall seeing cubs this early in the year once before and never on a trail that I use all the time. Finding a bear family here makes me especially unhappy because not only do I hike this way all the time, but it has thick laurel on both sides of the trail most of the way down the mountain. Like this:


A bear or three can be lurking in those bushes and you’d never know it until you bumped into them. I may have to start carrying the bell two months early this year. I normally only carry it in June and July when the black berries are ripe (black bears love black berries).

It would also probably be a good idea if I would not go completely off into daydream land while hiking. Unfortunately, I think I’m beyond help on that one. Just yesterday morning, when cooking my scrambled eggs — as I have done every morning since forever — I forgot to put the microwave on half power instead of the default full power. I realized my mistake when I heard the cover on the dish blow off and hit the top of the inside of the microwave. Turns out that eggs cooked in this way  get an interesting inflated crust on top and turn grey in the middle. How can eggs not be yellow? What else is changing color and who knows what else when my back is turned, metaphorically speaking?

Find out about my previous run in with a mother bear here. And about black bears in general, here.



April 22, 2009

Principled Dubiousness

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:07 am

Early in his new book of essays and reviews, George Scialabba declares himself a “utopian” and a “radical democrat,” though he concedes, parenthetically, that he owns up to this identification “on fewer days of the week than formerly.”

That’s the beginning of a book review, What Are Intellectuals Good For? by Wesley Yang in the Apr/May 2009 issue of Bookforum. More:

Scialabba is acutely conscious that the utopian impulse, having been held responsible for the worst atrocities of the twentieth century, is often derided these days. Still, qualified embraces such as the one above are Scialabba’s stock-in-trade. He stakes out a position, for example, in reviewing Russell Jacoby’s polemic The End of Utopia that permits him to say “Hold it, not so fast” to Jacoby’s own professed utopianism: “There is a rational kernel within the shell of anti-utopian prejudice. . . . [W]e all want to see the plans. And there are no plans.” At the same time, Scialabba sounds an equally skeptical “Yes, but” to the Soviet historian Robert Conquest’s “unwillingness to play fair with the revolutionary and utopian impulses—to admit that they might have any sources except a lust for domination.” Scialabba’s criticism is closely calibrated within the narrow band between these two statements of principled dubiousness.

Indeed, even his affirmation of the importance of injudiciousness is a model of judiciousness. “A sense of the simultaneous urgency and futility of much social criticism — i.e., the tragic sense — is a necessary part of the critical temperament,” he observes. “To resist this sense is the critic’s everyday responsibility. To give in to it, to risk excess, loss of dignity, disconnection, may also, on occasion, be his duty.”

I like that description (even though Scialabba’s heroes, Rorty, Chomsky and Lasch, are not my heroes, by any means).

Here is some principled dubiuosness (entirely unrelated to Scialabba) for you to be dubious about:

… Yvonne Raley’s paper “Jobless Objects: Mathematical Posits in Crisis” considers four formulations of the “makes no difference” argument proposed by Alan Baker. The argument reasons that the existence of abstract objects is irrelevant to the concrete physical world (including human neurophysiology and cognitive structures). Thus, there can be no good reason to believe in such things. Raley considers various ways in which the argument can be formulated (in terms of the causal inertness of abstract object, their indispensability to physics, their role in securing mathematical truth, and their role in accounting for mathematical knowledge). She concludes that postulating mathematical objects can do nothing to explain our ability to know mathematical truths, from which it follows that no argument from their alleged indispensability can be conclusive against the nominalist. The odd consequence is that on Raley’s view there turn out to be no mathematical truths (aside from those made trivially true by vacuous universal quantification), so accounting for our mathematical knowledge seems an utterly pointless exercise.

— from a review of the book, Philosophy of Mathematics: Set Theory, Measuring Theories, and Nominalism, Gerhard Preyer and Georg Peter (eds.); reviewed by Douglas M. Jesseph in Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews



April 21, 2009

A Talking Ape Giving a False Report

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:27 am

… Miguel Tamen responds in his “The Ape Speaks” by arguing, by analogy, that “a talking ape giving a false report is a good definition of ‘artist'” (113). Because talking apes are not real apes and thus the report from the Kafka-ape cannot be a report, the ape cannot fulfill his assignment to submit a report to the academy on his previous life as an ape. Likewise, artists cannot fulfill their task either, however it is characterized, because they too traffic in the equivalent of unreal or false reports.

That’s from a review of the book, Aesthetics and the Work of Art: Adorno, Kafka, Richter, by Peter de Bolla and Stefan H. Uhlig (eds.); reviewed by Michael Kelly in Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews. Reviewer Kelly goes on to describe Tamen’s claims in more detail. Kelly then rebuts Tamen’s arguments. Here is the last part of reviewer Kelly’s dissent:

… Fourth, the ape claims to be reporting only on his “one feeling: no way out” and he does so with great success, realizing that his life depends on it: “I had no way out but had to provide myself with one, for I could not live without it” (107). Moreover, once he thought of a “way out,” which we learn later is a mimetic skill that allows him to join the vaudeville (instead of the zoo) as an ape aping a human, he “stopped being an ape” (107). So the ape is able to do more with human words than merely sketch an apish feeling since he is referring to a feeling that, when carried out into the human world, led to the acquisition of language. In short, Kafka’s ape is more successful than Tamen allows and, continuing with his own analogy, so too is any artist.

To be sure, even the ape realizes that his success is not the fulfillment of a promise: “Promises of that kind, for seemingly impossible fulfillment, are not given. But if fulfillment is achieved,” as the very fact of the ape’s even attempting a report demonstrates, “the promises also appear subsequently, just where they had earlier been sought in vain” (109). In this light, it seems that Tamen focuses only on the seeming impossibility of the ape’s odyssey when it commences (or when he’s telling his story) and overlooks the fulfillment the ape achieves in the end, his “way out,” which is the truth-content of his story. Granted, the ape acknowledges that he behaves as if  he had calculated his “way out” when in reality it was beyond his control, but he adds dialectically that in saying this he is behaving and speaking “under the influence” of his human environment (109), the very one to which his report is directed. In true Adornian fashion, the Kafka-ape mimics the semblance of autonomy and in this sense is indeed an artist, though not quite the one Tamen imagines.

The above quotes are taken from the middle of the review. The next extract is taken from the near the beginning:

… Why are there so many barriers rather than membranes between aesthetics and art? Conceptually, there seems to be a tension instead of a “happy conjunction” between them, starting with an apparent circularity, since we seemingly cannot speak of an art work without having a concept of art in mind, yet that very concept cannot be imagined until we have concrete works. We might respond to this conceptual problem, as the editors do, by rejecting the prevalent ontology of art practiced by analytic aestheticians, who define art and then understand artworks as instantiations of that definition, and by focusing instead on the phenomenology of our affective experiences of singular works of art without naively privileging the artwork over theory. But then we have to contend with history, where the relationship between aesthetics and the work of art is equally problematic, since aesthetics predates the concept of the work of art and then, when the two are in place, aesthetics and the work seem to cooperate for only brief periods (e.g., in the early 19th century). Today, contemporary art appears to be independent of aesthetics and, in turn, aesthetics is concerned with much more than art, now that everyday experience and social-political concerns are routinely critiqued through aesthetics.

The next is from near the end:

… De Bolla begins with the materiality of the art work (support, size of canvas, pigment, etc.) that, when we encounter it, generates an affective experience indicating “the presence of an artwork.” He adds that “it is only the work” — not aesthetic theory — “that stakes a claim to art” (225-26), and makes his case by analyzing [Gerhard Richter’s painting] Betty’s turn in a unique way: “her turn is intended to facilitate the transmutation of a likeness into a portrait, giving a face to the turn that is representation” (233). So an encounter with “Betty’s turn,” a turn toward representation, leads de Bolla “to identify a claim to art” in the form of a sustaining aesthetics (237-38). To summarize, he has an encounter with an object and an affective experience, and then he is able to make sense of his experience by grasping the aesthetic grammar of this artwork, that is, a grammar unique to this work. From which de Bolla concludes: “Herein lies the common territory between aesthetics and the work of art: without the work this aesthetics would not be visible, still less required, and without aesthetics this work would be indiscernible, even unintelligible” (238-39).

De Bolla insists that he can avoid the haunting circularity between aesthetics and the work of art because the conceptual grammar of a work of art can be articulated without any prior appeal to a general theory of art: “the claim that this object makes to artness is sui generis” (226). Moreover, although any number of objects can generate the type of encounter that in turn generates a claim that there is a work of art present, and although there are many such possible encounters in the world, there “can be only one work of art” (227): “There is no general category ‘art’ to which many distinct objects may belong since the grounding of the artwork . . . is determined by my own encounter with it” (226). If there is an ontology of art here at all, it is a sparse one indeed. But it is certainly clear that primacy has been given to the work of art, though only insofar as it is mediated by our affective experience.


‘Betty’ by Gerhard Richter

While I like what I’ve quoted above, I found the rest of the review to be only mildly interesting. [ link ]



April 20, 2009

Incessant, Interminable Presencing

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:07 am

In America, it isn’t too far of a stretch to say that most are quite used to being interpolated as some sort of subject of the screen, be it the windshield or the flat screen. Whether in transport or tele-vision, life is full of traffic and flickering images. In the best of times there is a choice between being citizen-audience member or citizen-passenger. A full day might include both.

(above) from The Great American Staycation and the Risk of Stillness, by Sarah Sharma (Mar, 2009) in A Journal of Media and Culture (M/C Journal), Vol. 12, No. 1

It is not just about living, quivering flesh then because “the flesh is a process, not a ‘substance’, in the sense of something which is simply there” (Anderson and Wylie 7). And it is here that I think the ontological accounting of ‘still’ I want to install intervenes: for it is not that there is ever a ‘simply there’ but always a ‘there is’. And this ‘there is’ is not necessarily of sensuality or sensibility, nor is it something vitally felt in one form or another. Rather it persists and insists as a neutral, incessant, interminable presencing that questions us into being: ‘what are we doing here?’ Some form of minimal comprehension must ensue even if it is only ephemeral or only enough to ‘go on’ for a bit more.

(above) from Still: ‘No Man’s Land’ or Never Suspend the Question, by John-David Dewsbury in the same issue of M/C Journal. The theme for that issue is still. The further extracts, below, will alternate between the two essays already quoted from — Sharma, then Dewsbury:

… This lead story centred on a father in South Windsor, Connecticut “who took the money he would normally spend on vacations and created a permanent Staycation residence.” The palatial home was fitted with a basketball court, swimming pool, hot tub, gardening area, and volleyball court. In the same week (and for those without several acres) CBS’s Early Show featured the editor of behindthebuy.com,a company that specialises in informing the “time starved consumer” about new commodities. The lifestyle consultant previewed the newest and most necessary items “so you could get away without leaving home.” Key essentials included a “family-sized” tent replete with an air conditioning unit, a projector TV screen amenable to the outdoors, a high-end snow-cone maker, a small beer keg, a mini-golf kit, and a fast-setting swimming pool that attaches to any garden hose. The segment also extolled the virtues of the Staycation even when gas prices might not be so high, “you have this stuff forever, if you go on vacation all you have are the pictures.” Here, the value of the consumer products outweighs the value of erstwhile experiences that would have to be left to mere recollection. (Sharma)

… There is then a frustrated entitlement of being pre-occupied in space where we gain occupation not in equipmental activity but in the ontological attunement that makes us stall in fascination as a moment of comprehension. Such attunements are constitutive of being and as such are everywhere. They are however more readily seized upon as graspable in those moments of withdrawal from history, those moments that we don’t include when we bio-graph who we are to others, those ‘dull’ moments of pause, quiet, listlessness and apathy. But it is in these moments where, corporeally speaking, a suspension or dampening of sensibility heightens our awareness to perceive our being-there, and thus where we notice our coming to be in between heartbeat and thought. Such moments permanently wallpaper our world and as such provide room for perceiving that shadow mode of ‘stillness’ that “produces a strange insectlike buzzing in the margins” (Blanchot, Fire 333). Encountering is then the minimal sense of going on in the face of the questions asked of the body. (Dewsbury)

… Playing on the American democratic ideals of freedom of mobility and activating one’s identity as a consumer left little room to re-think how life in constant motion (moving capital, moving people, moving information, and moving goods) was partially responsible for the energy crisis in the first place. Instead, staying at home became a way for the American citizen to support the floundering economy while waiting for gas prices to go back down. [ … ] the overwhelming sense was of a nation waiting at home for it all to be over. Soon real life would resume and everyone could get moving again. (Sharma)

… One of the autobiographical images for Beckett was of an old man holding a child’s hand walking down a country road. But what does this say of being? Embodied being and being-there respectively act as sensation and orientation. The touch of another’s hand is equally a touch of minimal comprehension that acts as a momentary placement. But who is guiding who? Who is pre-occupying and giving occupation to whom? Or take Pinter and the end of No Man’s Land: two men centred in a room one hoping to be employed by the other in order to employ the other back into the ‘land of the living’ rather than wait for death. Are they reflections of the same person, an internal battle to will one’s life to live, or rather to move one’s living fleshy being to an occupation (of place or as a mode by which one opens oneself up to the surroundings in which you literally find oneself — to become occupied by something there and to comprehend in doing so). Either way, is that all there is? Is this how it is? Do we just accept ‘life’ as it is? Or does ‘life’ always move us? (Dewsbury)

Sharma’s article begins with a quote from Ivan Illich’s Energy and Equity:

The habitual passenger cannot grasp the folly of traffic based overwhelmingly on transport. His inherited perceptions of space and time and of personal pace have been industrially deformed. He has lost the power to conceive of himself outside the passenger role (Illich 25).

Read the full essays, if you like. Sarah Sharma [ link] and Dewsbury [ link ].



April 19, 2009

Individuals Are Individual

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:29 am

Well, duh. Of course individuals are individual; that’s why we call them ‘individuals,’ not ‘sames.’

But apparently there are quite a few scientists — you know, those people trained to be objectively observant? — who find this ‘individual’ thing surprising:

A lab is a lab is a lab. A mouse is a mouse is a mouse. So if you test genetically identically strains of mice in the sterile, controlled, homogeneous confines of a lab in Toledo, Ohio and run the same experiment again in a lab in Berlin, you should get the same results. Not necessarily, according to a just published study in the British science journal Nature Methods, which presents strong evidence that researchers’ current practice of trying to limit variations in laboratories is a fundamental flaw of experimental design, one that increases errors in early drug development tests and in turn drives up the cost of pharmaceutical development.

In their study, Joseph Garner, a Purdue assistant professor of animal sciences and his colleague professor Hanno Wurbel of the Justus-Liebig University of Giessen in Germany observed behavioral differences in three different strains of mice in three different labs in two different types of cages at three different times of year — variations that are not controlled for or currently expected to affect the outcome of an experiment. The team found 10 times more false positives, where one strain appears to act differently from another at rates higher than expected. 

— from The Unraveling of Homogeny by David Nayor (Apr 9, 2009) in Seed magazine

And, amazingly enough, individual birds of a species are not all identical either! Imagine that:

“This is the first study in a natural bird population to study the relationship between trappability and behavioral syndromes,” Garamszegi says.

To see whether collared flycatchers (Ficedula albicollis) have behavioral syndromes, Garamszegi, then at the University of Antwerp in Belgium, and his colleagues worked with flycatchers living in nest boxes near Pilis Field Station in Hungary.

In a test for readiness to cope with novelty, researchers assessed each male’s typical behavior by placing a live female in a cage at his nest box. Then researchers attached a novel object, a piece of white paper, to the male’s nest box and watched to see how curiously he explored the oddity.

To grade birds’ willingness to take risks, researchers determined how close a bird would let them approach. And for aggressive tendencies, the researchers observed how vigorously a territory holder objected to the arrival of a caged male.

With these data, researchers found links between the behaviors in different contexts. Birds willing to explore and cope with that novel piece of paper were also likely to take more risks, letting researchers get closer.

After trying to trap the birds, the researchers linked both traits to a higher tendency to get caught. Researchers then redid their behavioral syndrome analyses, dropping data from the birds that couldn’t be caught. Losing the shy birds changed some of the results.

“Your capturing method really influences the outcome of your study,” Garamszegi says. “When you have a different sample, you may find completely different biological patterns.”

Sampling issues will differ depending on the animal, says Chad Johnson of Arizona State University in Glendale, who studies personalities in spiders. “For myself, I always wondered with fishing spiders if I was only collecting the truly lazy, unreactive spiders that did not submerge under water when they heard me coming.”

Ann Hedrick of the University of California, Davis, who studies behavioral syndromes in crickets, says the new work “draws attention to an important consideration in designing future studies.”

— from Oh, He’s Such a Lab Bird, by Susan Milius (Apr 10, 2009) in ScienceNews

Scientists who have no clue about animals should not be working with animals. I know that “have no clue” is not exactly a scientific phrase, but you know what I mean. At least I hope you do.



April 18, 2009

Portraiture: Revelations of Deep Inner Meaning

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 12:12 pm



(explanation [such as it is] found here)



Superreality (1929)

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:43 am

The possibilities of utilizing photography are already innumerable, since through it the crudest and the finest effects of light values — later on also of color values — can be obtained. Such as:

Registration of situations, of reality;
Combining and projecting upon another and next to each other; Interpenetration; Organizable scenic intensifications; supperreality, utopia and jest (this will be the new joke!)
Objective, but also expressive portraits;

That’s from a 1929 essay, The Future of the Photographic Process, by László Moholy-Nagy. Here is more (that preceded the above):

It is still revolutionary to proclaim a basic enrichment of our optic organ with the aid of changed compositional principles in painting and the film. Most men still cling too much to an evolutionary continuity of the manual-imitative ad analogiam classical pictures, so that they are unable to conceive this complete change.

And from near the end:

… To illustrate the idea of photoplasticism: these photoplastic studies — composed of various photographs — are an experimental method of simultaneous presentation; compressed interpenetration of the visual and the verbal jest; a weird linking with the imaginary of the most real, imitative means. But at the same time they may tell a story, and be of solid quality; more true “then life itself.” This work which today is still done by hand, we will soon be able to produce mechanically with the aid of projections and new methods of copying.

… The present method of cutting-out, arrangement side by side, the fatiguing organization of photographic proofs, shows a superior form in contrast to the early pasting work of the Dadaists. But only through mechanical construction and development along big lines will photography and the film realise the marvelous possibilities for effect which are inherent in them.



April 17, 2009


Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 6:59 am


The bird in this picture is a brown headed cowbird. They are one of my favorites; they’re elegant, stylish and very expressive.

Here (below) is a female. Also beautiful in a lovely understated but equally elegant way.


Gorgeous. However, many people, or probably most people despise them. I have a neighbor, a woman whom I consider a friend. She’s a nice (otherwise) peaceful animal-loving person — who shoots cowbirds on sight. (She has an air-gun and claims to be a very good shot.)

Here is why people hate brown headed cowbirds: they are brood parasites. That means that, like cuckoos, they lay their eggs in the nests of other species of birds and this often results in the death of those birds’ own offspring. Brown headed cowbird’s lay their eggs in the nests of more than 220 host species. Host-parasite interactions are summarized on Wikipedia, as follows:

Egg rejection

Host parents may sometimes easily notice the cowbird egg, to which different host species react in different ways. Rejection manifests in three forms: nest desertion (e.g., Blue-gray Gnatcatcher), burying of the egg under nest material (e.g., Yellow Warbler)[4], and physical ejection of the egg from the nest (e.g., Brown Thrasher).[5] Brown-headed cowbird nestlings are sometimes expelled from the nest.

Unsuitable diet

The House Finch feeds its young a vegetarian diet, which is unsuitable for young Brown-headed Cowbirds. Although the Brown-headed Cowbird eggs laid in a House Finch nest will hatch, almost none survive to fledge.[6]

Parasite response

It seems that Brown-headed Cowbirds periodically check on their eggs and young after they have deposited them. Removal of the parasitic egg may trigger a retaliatory reaction termed “mafia behavior”. According to a study by the Florida Museum of Natural History published in 1983, the cowbird returned to ransack the nests of a range of host species in 56% of the time when their egg was removed. In addition, the cowbird also destroyed nests in a type of “farming behavior” to force the hosts to build new ones. The cowbirds then laid their eggs in the new nests 85% of the time.

That’s why people hate brown headed cowbirds. They claim it’s a morality thing, especially since it involves baby killing. I don’t think that’s the whole story. Numerous other animals and birds kill baby birds. I think cowbirds are hated because we see them as cheaters and we humans (and primates, research has shown) hate cheaters. We are always intensely sensitive to relative gain (as opposed to absolute gain).


Whatever the cause for the common moral revulsion at cowbirds, I think it’s wrong. In order for these birds to be guilty of a moral offense, they must have had the choice and the ability to do otherwise than they did. Brown headed cowbirds aren’t capable of doing (or choosing to do) anything other than what they do.

Unlike other species of animals that are hated by humans, these birds aren’t scary; they don’t threaten us in any way; they don’t harm our property or carry diseases. They aren’t an invasive species; the birds that they parasitize have been living with them through the ages and they’re in stable equilibrium, host and parasite.


I am not suggesting that there is anything wrong with thinking of and using animals (or vegetables or minerals) metaphorically in art, literature, or mythology. But this, along with the pervasive use of talking animals in children’s books, movies and TV (which I’ll admit I enjoy), seems to cause many people, whether they are aware of it or not, to end up thinking of animals as being, at root, like us. Animals may be stupider or childlike, but their motivations and thought-processes are believed to be of the same “kind,” if not the same quality, as ours. They seem to perceive things as we do (eyes, ears, touch, etc.); they seem to often act/respond like us, therefore they must be “like us.” This applies to both animal-lovers and animal-haters. This results in distorted interpretations of animal needs and attribution of blame or credit.

It would be far more rational, respectful, loving to understand and accept animals on their own terms, not on ours.

For more on anthropomorphism (which my post title, anthropo-moralism is a play on), see Wikipedia. And, for a laugh, see The Onion.

An addendum to the above:

By chance, just a few days ago, I had a brown thrasher appear on my feeding/photographing area. I had caught a glimpse of it a few days before, but that was the only time I’d seen one there. It was odd because I don’t think they eat seeds. Anyway, when he showed up in front of my camera, there was a big gang of cowbirds already feeding. I got six good shots of him (and one tail shot — he didn’t fit in the frame), after which all hell broke loose with the cowbirds. At the time, I thought they had attacked him, but, now I realize that he was probably there, not for the bird seed but in order to attack the cowbirds himself (the thrasher is quite a bit bigger than a cowbird). This picture is just before he left — my eighth and probably last ever thrasher photo. (See this reference that says host birds attack cowbirds.)


(This thrasher photo also shows how close I am. A 300mm lens at about eight feet won’t fit this bird into the frame. I’ve cropped the left and right sides, but that’s the full height I can get. He popped his head up; I didn’t move the camera quick enough to get the top of his head.)

I love cowbirds. I accept them as they are. I wish others would too.




« Newer PostsOlder Posts »

Blog at WordPress.com.