Saturday, August 29, 2009

Bird Brains

New respect for small minds ...

Long ago a particular bird impressed the heck out of me. I was sitting by a pond in a local park (Fuchs Park, to be precise) when this small winged creature hopped down to the water's edge to feed.

My friends who are bird fanciers will have to forgive me for not knowing its species. It was shiny and black or dark brown, that's the best I can do. The main thing is, it was not a water bird, one of those long-legged varieties that wade around looking for critters to scoop up in their long pointed or shovel-shaped beaks. No, this was a normal tree-dwelling type of bird, with a short beak built for pecking. I would have expected it to be searching the lawn for insects and worms.

Instead it amazed me by peering into the water, then quickly darting its head under and emerging with an aquatic snail. Placing it down on a rock, it held the shell with one foot while extracting the escargot with its beak. This bird was a gourmet! I marveled over its ingenuity. How had it learned to do this? When did the first of its kind learn that there was food in the water? Was the behavior taught, invented, or instinctual?

Recently far more advanced examples of avian intelligence have been documented. This BBC news item shows a rook smart enough to drop pebbles into a glass tube in order to raise the water level so it could reach the snack inside. (The story is told in one of Aesop's fables, which we now see may have been based on fact instead of fantasy.) I thought this problem-solving ability was impressive when I saw a chimpanzee do it, but a bird? How is it possible to pack so much intelligence into a brain the size of a pea?

Maybe we need to rethink the whole idea of how unique our intellectual capabilities are. True, Aristotle took the bird's accomplishment a step further when, noticing how his body displaced the bath water, he came up with the concept of mass and how to measure it. And building on such insights, look how far we've come.

But seeing these examples of the innate intelligence of some of the smallest creatures, we need to admit to a greater and more widespread intelligence at large in the world, the same one from which we, like the birds, have been born.


Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Magic Words

When language itself becomes a tool ...

The human belief in magical powers has probably included the power of words dating back to the earliest beginnings of language. It's widely present in mythology and fable, and continues with us today in contemporary myths like the Dungeons and Dragons game and the Harry Potter saga. Who wouldn't like to be able to say "shazam" or "abracadabra" and have things happen?

Language may not have been our first tool, but it quickly became the most powerful of them through its ability to encode knowledge and pass it along to others, even across generations. Each time we enhanced it, the power of language increased dramatically. We invented writing to supplement our power to remember, then printing to increase the availability of written documents, and lately what we might call "indexing" -- the addition of powerful search algorithms to make information radically more accessible.

Information that used to be arcane because it was buried in a single library somewhere is increasingly widespread and publicly available. My first experience of this was back in the early years of the Internet. I was running a digital printing business at the time and wanted information about scanning images -- recommendations for color depth, dots per inch, and how to scale them.

It was one of the first things I ever used a search engine for, and even though there was no Google yet (I was probably using Yahoo or AltaVista) within five minutes I was reading a masters thesis on the subject which had been made available by a distant university. The document answered all my questions and then some, complete with illustrations, charts, and graphs. I was truly impressed.

Such incidents are now so commonplace that we not only expect them but take them for granted. Why shouldn't things be this way? Of course, all we should have to do is know what question to ask, and the answers will be available -- all 2,417,673 of them.

Behind the scenes of this modern miracle is the global network of computers and software that are doing the job for us. And the real secret of their power is the use of language to communicate with them -- both for programming and for getting comprehensible output from them.

This came home to me again recently as I was honing my skills as a website designer. Mostly this involved facility with various computer languages -- HTML/XHTML for page content, CSS for page styles, and both Javascript and PHP for working with special effects, databases, forms, and "dynamic" pages created on the fly in response to user input.

The most satisfying part of this job is that the words you write actually DO something. They are the abracadabras of the computer age. And even though computers are notoriously intolerant of tiny typos like incorrect capitalization or missing semicolons, they are absolutely obedient to correct syntax. (And really, wouldn't it be better if we humans could be relied upon to require clear instructions and then to do exactly what we have agreed to do?)

In the spirit of the new age, this mastery of the machine is not limited to those who can do the programming. Anyone who wants it can access the same search engines. Anyone who wants one can have an email account. The computers are standing by to do our bidding.

So next time you send a message to a bunch of your friends, just say, "Shazam!" and see what happens.

Monday, August 03, 2009

We Shall Overcome

"When I use a word, it means what I want it to mean."
- Humpty Dumpty in Alice in Wonderland.

So Pete Seeger is 90. This achievement was celebrated in a big star-studded bash at Madison Square Garden recently, honoring a lifetime of service to the causes of public good. Seems as if he's been an old man for my whole life. The year I turned 15 and discovered folk music Pete was already 43, older than my parents, and that seemed plenty old at the time. Now I'm a grandpa myself and he's still old enough to be looked up to.

My first years in college coincided with Pete's short-lived TV show called "Rainbow Quest." Of his many guests I especially remember the delightful Malvina Reynolds who gave us "Little Boxes" (made of ticky-tacky), and guitar wizard Leo Kottke, who demonstrated how beat up his instrument was by knocking his cigarette ashes into the hole in its scarred top.

By that time Pete was already a veteran of the Depression era, the struggles for unionization, racial equality and nuclear disarmament, and the blacklisting of the McCarthy period. Always a survivor, he somehow managed to emerge from it all unscathed and undaunted -- in the words of Bruce Springsteen, he "outlasted the bastards."

One thing that struck me in Seeger's recent interviews was that he didn't care for the fuss being made over him because, "I don't like big things." How to reconcile that with a lifetime of involvement with big social issues? I found an answer in the footage of him wandering through the crowd at an outdoor concert, his face lighting up with delighted attention to anyone who wanted to speak with him. This has been his magic, to take the personal relationship to the scale of a mass movement, recognizing that all meaningful human contact is always one-to-one. His songs speak to us individually, but appeal to what is universal in us, challenging us to do the same in our relations with one another.

The highest measure of success for song writers is not how many albums they sell but how many other people perform their songs. By now Pete's list of indelible tunes has imprinted itself on our collective consciousness to a degree that insures they will be with us for a long while. And each time the words are taken up by a new voice, the sentiments they embody spring into action once more, reaching new ears and new minds, addressing the age old problems in yet another incarnation.

Take "If I Had a Hammer," for example, which Seeger wrote along with Lee Hays of The Weavers. In the early Sixties, while Seeger himself was still banned from television, the tune was taken to a mass audience by Peter, Paul and Mary, who delivered it into millions of living rooms "live" on the Smothers Brothers show -- and nailed it, I might add. Thus the lyrics spoke on behalf of the one who was not allowed to speak. A message of empowerment spread across the land, encouraging anyone who would listen to pick up that hammer, ring that bell, and take up the chorus of social change.

And who else would have thought that you could clean up a river by building a boat and writing a song? Only Pete could have brought to bear the implacable confidence that if we would only stop filling it with refuse the waters of the Hudson would soon run clear once more. And what a parable that is for the many perils and evils that we still have to overcome.

Did I say "overcome?" Of course that brings us to the most famous song that Pete did not write, the gospel tune which he published back in 1949 and helped to foster into what became the anthem of the Civil Rights Movement. This song has a long history with many participants, but Pete's biggest contribution, aside from the verses he added, was his revision of a single word from will to shall. He claims this was simply because "it sang better," and that feels like it is so. But I would argue that it served another function as well.

Grammatically, when using the first person we are supposed to use shall normally, and will to indicate a higher degree of intention or determination. The fact that this is opposite to the usage for the second or third person has helped to make it so confusing that shall is falling out of use altogether, especially in the common language of the folk who are theoretically responsible for folk songs. The result, I think, is that in common speech shall, whenever it is used, indicates emphasis, grammatically correct or not. In America, especially, we have the words of Abraham Lincoln lurking in the backs of our minds, promising that this government of the people "shall not perish from the earth," and that is a use of the intentional that has left its impression on us.

[A similar phenomenon happened among Quakers, whose use of "thee" and "thou" dates back to when these commonly used terms were simply the familiar forms of "you." They made a point of using them because they did not want to confer undue respect toward any individual by the use of the formal "you." Well, the language has changed since then. Thee and thou have disappeared from English altogether, with the notable exception of addressing God in scriptures or formal prayers. Thus the formerly familiar terms have come to indicate a respect, not to say awe, for the Deity. Any Quakers who persist in the old usage are considered quaint. And though they could argue that they are only showing proper respect for "that of God in everyone," that was not the original intention. In reality, most contemporary Quakers have adopted the current usage of "you" along with everyone else, because plain speech was the goal of this exercise.]
So my argument is that in current usage Seeger's substitution of the word shall gave an added emphasis of intention, just as it would if addressing a crowd in the third person. In any case the singing of the tune certainly enhanced the intentions of a generation of activists for peace and social justice, and even took root in soil as far afield as Czechoslovakia in the peaceful revolution of 1989.

Since Pete came of age with the arrival of Marshall McCluhan's "global village," it is not unusual that this wandering troubadour has reached far more people than he would have been able to do in the past, no matter how much travelling he might have done. Many who have been touched by his spirit have only done so through a recording or an image on TV. I've only seen him once in person at a concert he gave with Arlo Guthrie in Miami Beach some years ago. But that one close encounter was enough to last a lifetime.

And you know, Miami audiences are not known for their willingness to sing along. But we sang that night, because Pete asked us to, and because he made us feel like singing.