Wednesday, June 20, 2007

why birds sing

I just finished watching the documentary Why Birds Sing on BBC4. David Rothenberg says they sing because they enjoy it (and a neurologist has contributed significant evidence to this theory by showing an increase in dopamine - a pleasure hormone - levels in birds' brains when they sing). Conventional bird-song science says that they sing to attract females to mate with, and that the females are attracted by the complexity of the song, and that there's no aesthetic sense in birds. But if that is the case, why are the female birds attracted to the song? If they find complex songs more attractive, then they're making an aesthetic judgment. QED. I don't understand why rationalists are so antipathetic to the idea that animals feel emotion. If there are gay animals (clearly having sex for a reason other than procreation, like emotional bonding) and animals that love to interact with other animals - like dogs and cats that like to hang out together - then clearly animals experience emotions. In The Science of Discworld, Jack Cohen mentions that he once had a praying mantis (an insect, for goodness' sake) that liked to do tricks to impress an audience, and would not perform if you gave him a trick that he considered too simple. So I can't see what is so irrational about saying that birds have an aesthetic sense, and sing for the sheer pleasure of singing. I don't think this is anthropomorphising birds. It is quite probable that early humans were inspired to make music by listening to birds, and this is why our musical scales are similar to theirs. It seems that rationalists want to take away any notion of love or spirituality, and explain everything mechanistically. I don't think it is irrational to say that birds and animals can experience pleasure (why else do cats enjoy stroking and food, bonobos enjoy sex, or humans enjoy all the things that we enjoy - after all, we are animals too).

There's also a longer article by David Rothenberg on why this is important.
"As human music grows to encompass ever more kinds of sounds and listens more sensitively to what is around us, there will be more interspecies music than ever before. It works best when the human musician welcomes the encounter with openness and respect, ready to take in the unfamiliar and genuinely learn something new, to change one's musical sense in the presence of new and exciting sounds. Approach the situation without too many expectations, and let us make music together that neither species could make apart. It is one more way for us to learn about and to appreciate the animal world."
And here's another article, featuring marvellous musical mice (who sing in octaves and shifts in the ultrasonic range).
Timothy Holy and Zhongsheng Guo of Washington University in St. Louis show that male mice “sing” to females in ultrasonic ranges.

“Individual males produce songs with characteristic syllabic and temporal structure,” the authors write.

In this study of captive animals, the mice sing primarily in octaves and shifts. In a study of wild California wild mice, other researchers found that the mice sang in thirds. Patricia Gray says, “This is phenomenal to me as a musician that intervals do matter. They matter to us and to other species as well.”

video captioning

Apparently you can add captions to your videos using CamStudio. I've got a copy that I downloaded, and the option is there, although I am not sure how to use that option yet. I have to make some screencasts for work, and I want to add captions to them. I've written the scripts, so all I have to do is copy and paste them into the video captioning tool.

Allegedly you can use SMIL with AVI files as well as with RAM. I've used SMIL before, it's great, but I don't know if it works with WMV or SWF.

geek love

As the romance gets serious:

But later:

(thanks to Phil for finding the second cartoon)

Friday, June 15, 2007

braille campaign

The campaign aims for children to have the right to learn braille. Many children with significant sight loss are losing out because teachers think they do not need to learn braille. We want our children to become fully literate and employable and believe braille is the only way for a child with very limited vision. There is even talk of not teaching braille to children who are totally blind and just relying on speech operated technology. Please sign this petition: or for more information go to:

Thursday, June 14, 2007

the last human?

After I finished the wonderful The Stolen Child, I started reading I am Legend (1954) by Richard Matheson. Funnily enough, both books are about what it means to be human, but in radically different ways.

The protagonist of I am Legend is the only human being not to have been infected by a plague of vampirism that has swept over the whole earth. As a consequence, he decides that he must kill as many vampires as possible, and hopes eventually to find some other uninfected people. Gradually, however, he works out the infection vector and lifecycle of the vampiris bacteria, and how it accounts for the symptoms of vampirism. It gradually dawns on the reader that if this is an illness, it is not supernatural, so there is no "moral obligation" to kill the vampires. Eventually you get to find out how the vampires feel about it. It's a study in how someone can turn into a complete psychopath, but feel entirely justified in his compulsion to kill. Although it's about vampires, it can actually be classified as "hard SF", since there is a well-worked out scientific explanation of vampirism, and it's about the sociological and psychological developments that might occur if there was a plague of vampirism. But it is also a story of loss and grief and fear, and the possibility of forgiveness. The character of Ruth is particularly interesting, though not that well-fleshed-out, and I'm not sure I believed in her forgiveness. But still, it was a very interesting read. There was also the idea of what it is that makes us human - is it that we are not vampires or whatever, or is it that we are capable of relating to others, of empathy, and trust and acceptance? This aspect of the book sort of reminded me of Cassandra in Doctor Who, who is also "the last human" but in her solitude and pride, has lost her humanity. This loss of empathy is applicable to many other bigots who demonise other people.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

creationism research

Recent research on creationism in the USA shows that almost half of Americans do not believe in evolution.

It seems, though, that the question was not framed in such a way as to allow for people who
believe that one of the seven "days" of creation was millions of years, and that evolution and the big bang are true, but God, a god, or the gods started the whole process - where do these people fit in the scheme of things?
  • 24% of Americans believe that both the theory of evolution and the theory of creationism are probably or definitely true
  • 41% believe that creationism is true, and that evolution is false
  • 28% believe that evolution is true, but that creationism is false
  • 3% either believe that both are false or have no opinion about at least one of the theories
Without further research, it's not possible to determine the exact thinking process of those who agreed that both the theory of evolution and creationism are true. It may be, however, that some respondents were seeking a way to express their views that evolution may have been initiated by or guided by God, and told the interviewer that they agreed with both evolution and creationism in an effort to express this more complex attitude.
Personally I believe in a multiverse in which universes appear and disappear due to the effects of black and white holes (many physicists have adopted this view), and where the processes of evolution, emergence and collapse are the physical correlates of the thought processes of the mind of the Universe.

taking liberties

Taking Liberties
The shocking truth about the erosion of our fundamental civil liberties by Tony Blair’s government will be exposed this summer in TAKING LIBERTIES, released in UK cinemas by Revolver Entertainment June 8th 2007.

Right to Protest, Right to Freedom of Speech. Right to Privacy. Right not to be detained without charge, Innocent Until Proven Guilty. Prohibition from Torture. TAKING LIBERTIES will reveal how these six central pillars of liberty have been systematically destroyed by New Labour, and the freedoms of the British people stolen from under their noses amidst a climate of fear created by the media and government itself.

TAKING LIBERTIES uncovers the stories the government don’t want you to hear – so ridiculous you will laugh, so ultimately terrifying you will want to take action. Teenage sisters detained for 36 hours for a peaceful protest; an RAF war veteran arrested for wearing an anti-Bush and Blair T-shirt; an innocent man shot in a police raid; and a man held under house arrest for two years, after being found innocent in court. Ordinary law-abiding citizens being punished for exercising their ‘rights’ – rights that have been fought for over centuries, and which seem to have been extinguished in a decade.

Irreverent but revelatory, outrageous but true, TAKING LIBERTIES combines these real stories of liberty loss with never-seen-before footage, cheeky stunts and comment from Mark Thomas, leading politicians, celebrities, human rights organisations, academics and lawyers. Narration from Ashley Jensen (EXTRAS, UGLY BETTY); a pumping soundtrack with tracks by Oasis, Radiohead, Stranglers and Franz Ferdinand; and the presence of Kurt Engfehr, producer of FAHRENHEIT 9/11 and BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE add up to make TAKING LIBERTIES the most explosive and controversial film to hit screens this summer.
This film sounds well worth seeing. The erosion of civil liberties over the last decade has been frighteningly silent and swift, with little protest about it, possibly because few people understand the issues. Hopefully this film will rectify the lack of awareness.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

equal access

I'm hearing but I support equal communication access for the Deaf
Communications access now!

Why should Deaf people be forced to undergo surgery, excluded from most videos on the web, and generally regarded as disabled?

Accessibility of communications (such as video captioning) benefits everyone (e.g. I can't get sound on YouTube for some reason) including people with dyslexia and Deaf people.

It's not that hard to add captioning to your videos, and there's a service called Project ReadOn where you can get captioning done for free.

If you want to take part in this campaign, take a photo or video of yourself with either a sign saying "I am deaf and I deserve equal communication access" or "I'm hearing but I support equal communication access for the deaf" and send it to

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

stop climate chaos

Sign the petition to the G8+5 summit - apparently when put a big box of more than quarter of a million signatures on the table, world leaders started to take notice that people want them to do something about climate change. So please sign the petition and add your voice to those who have already signed.