The Dinosaur Returneth

One year ago I didn’t have a website, didn’t write blog posts, didn’t even have a cell phone, and what’s most amazing to my family and friends, didn’t die of embarrassment. My computer literacy would not have impressed a preschooler.

What I did have was the 21st century right where I wanted it – at arms length. That was other people’s problem. I was a dinosaur and proud of it. People forget that dinosaurs lived for millions of years without these things, and that it took an asteroid to kill them.

Dinosaurs left no written record though, so we can only wonder what they thought and how they spent their days. I do plenty of writing however, and while it might cause people to wonder about my thinking abilities, I began to realize that the best way to leave a written record was by finally joining the 21st century. So that’s what I did, with the help of a couple of patient people, the Happiness Engineers at WordPress, and the Happiness Brewers who make Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. I am happy to report that I would be perfectly comfortable going mano-a-mano on the computer with most 1st graders now.

Anyway, this is a long way of saying that I miss my dinosaur days. And it appears that the 21st century is having a bigger effect on me than I am having on it. So be it, I knew it wouldn’t be a fair fight. So I have decided to call a retreat, and go back to my pre website/blog/cell phone days, and to work on my novel instead. I figured I better let people know so at least they won’t think I’ve gone extinct.

I’m going to miss all the wonderful writers/thinkers/humorists I’ve been following, but the 20th century is calling me back. As the aptly named Ashley Brilliant said, “All I want in life is that wonderful feeling of accomplishment without having to accomplish anything.” No doubt I’ll be back at some point, but in the meantime, stay well and Write On!

Lights! Pheromones! Action! (Behind the Scenes with Fireflies)

Some days I just have to ask – do humans live in an insect world, or do insects live in a human world?  This may seem like a dumb question to anyone not familiar with my world, where both insects and humans leave a lot of room for improvement, but at least I don’t go around spraying either of them with poisons or infecting them with diseases.  Personally I think it’s time we laid down our arms and learned to look past each other’s faults and focus on our accomplishments. 

            Most people, when they think about bugs, keep it to themselves.  But entomologists, who have accomplished a lot merely by choosing to study insects, say that insects have accomplished quite a lot too, and I think they mean it.  They say, for instance, that there could be as many as 10 million species, making up nearly 90 percent of all life forms on earth.  They don’t say that 89 percent of those forms exist merely to frighten, annoy, or disgust humans, but they do say that humans wouldn’t look nearly as interesting in a glass jar or pinned to a collection table. 

            Entomologists also like saying that there are about 1.4 billion insects per person.  In fact it is a prime example of why entomologists frighten, annoy, or disgust some humans as well.  But even with their faults, I don’t think anyone is better qualified to be our ambassadors to the insect world.  And as there are no other candidates for the job, they have my vote.

            Now I’m no entomologist, and I would probably deny it if I was.  But if we’re going to hope for any kind of détente here, I’d like to nominate fireflies as the insect ambassadors to our world.  To me, fireflies are the superheroes of the insect world, and not only for their ability to disarm people who would otherwise only enter the insect world armed with bug spray and a cross.  The very mention of fireflies or lightning bugs is enough to evoke the memories of warm summer evenings, fairy tales, childhood dreams, and a world full of mystery and enchantment.  Or of my young sons running around the house shining a flashlight on their naked butts while yelling, “Look, I’m a firefly!”  I really hope they’ve gotten over that by now.

            While life may imitate nature at times, humans will never glow like fireflies.  No matter how many margheritas we drink, it’s just not the same.  The firefly’s preferred cocktail of luciferin, luciferase, adenosine triphosphate, and uric acid crystals on the other hand, not only makes them light up the night, but gives them a much better chance for sex than slurred speech, obnoxious behavior, and designated drivers will ever do. 

            Nothing stirs a young male’s blood like a warm summer evening and the chance to flash the ladies.  Yes, I’m still talking about fireflies here.  But as firefly species have different flash patterns, he’s got to get it right.  Cross species mating attempts beget nothing except gossip and inuendo, though they do open up the field on date night.

            The intensity of the flash is also critical.  His goal is to stand out as the brightest firefly in his field.  Only then will the ladies notice him and flash back an invitation.  And if he has any energy left after all that flashing, the night is his.  His chances are good at that point because the light a firefly makes is the most energy efficient light known to science.  This makes it handy when you’re watching fireflies to say that you’re really studying light energy optimization potentials instead of the sex lives of insects.  Still, as the crowds of firefly watchers grow, I have to wonder how many people would be thrilled to see so many eyes on them in their bedrooms.

            Not all fireflies sex lives however get such glowing reviews.  Some use pheromones to attract mates instead.  As I said earlier, we all have our faults, but fireflies that don’t glow are about as sexy as entomologists who do while they’re showing off their bug collections.  And that’s not the half of it.  In fact, some species don’t even fly!  While I’m at it I should probably tell you that they’re not even flies – they’re beetles.  So much for truth in advertising.  These horrors however are nothing compared to the evils that some entomologists don’t wish us to know.

            Many species of fireflies are poisonous, and can kill any birds or lizards that eat them.  I know – take a minute to compose yourself.  It’s the job of birds and lizards to eat insects.  Who else could we get to do that job?  If insects start killing birds and lizards, where will it end?  And if you find this worrisome, there is even a whole genus full of fireflies that are cannibals!  The females will imitate the flash pattern of another species’ males in the area, lure them down with the promise of a hot night, and eat them!  That’s a femme fatale to make any young male stay at home with the lights off and the phone unplugged.  Is the superhero really a super villain?

            Well, say those pesky entomologists, if the fireflies were to shine their lights on us, how well would we stand up to the scrutiny?  Not well, they say.  Firefly populations, like many insect populations, are declining fast, and it’s all because of us.  And without insects, there would be no life on earth.  So it really would behoove all of us to drop our weapons, turn off The Batchelor and The Bachelorette, and start appreciating shows like The Firefly Dating Game as if our lives depended on it.  Also because the entomologists will bug us until we do.

Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?

As best I can tell, life evolved to be an endless series of choices.  This would be fine if it hadn’t also evolved parents to endlessly criticize those choices.  Announce that you’re choosing to become a writer if you don’t believe me.  But I really don’t think things would get any better if we could choose our parents.  Who would we blame then for our bad choices?

            And let’s face it, we all make bad choices.  Evolution can only do so much, and it’s already gone out on a limb with us.  Bad choices are often the sexy choices, which makes it extra hard on our minds, and our minds are having a hard enough time keeping up with the Kardashians as it is, never mind evolution.  I know one look at their TV show is enough to make my mind struggle for survival.  So who do we listen to then when it’s time to make one of our most important choices – a life partner?  Biologists?  Psychologists?  Our parents?  None are exactly sexy choices, but it’s either them or me.  You be the judge.  I’ll be the one in the speedo.

            Biologists believe we are evolutionarily designed to make our mate choices based on Darwin’s second theory of evolution called ‘Sexual Selection by Mate Choice.’  It’s always good to have a second theory in case your first one makes you look like a monkey.  In this theory, the females have evolved to be the principal choosers, and the males have evolved to act like monkeys while they’re trying to get chosen.  The theory holds that females are evolutionarily driven to choose mates who display certain traits that advertise their fitness as reproductive partners.  Surprisingly, crushing beer cans on their foreheads is not one of them, though there are many females who think otherwise.

            Generally speaking, the male traits that females link to fitness involve things like muscular appearance, height, voice pitch, facial shape, and dominant behavior.  These are perceived to align with masculinity and be indicators of health and fertility.  It’s hard to argue with evolution, though there are plenty of people who still do, and somehow they reproduce.

            Evolution is no one trick pony however, and males have evolved other tricks to get chosen by females besides bench pressing them.  One is actually to possess more feminine traits, which tends to indicate a greater likelihood for long-term commitment.  This has proven beneficial in raising children, particularly children who learn the delicate balance between respect and fear in relationships.

            Females are also likely to be attracted to males who possess a higher degree of eloquence, on the theory that language skills are better indicators of intelligence than grunts.  Poets, writers, singers, and BS artists are all included here.  This has proven beneficial in raising children who do not need to crush beer cans on their foreheads.

            The biologists rest their case.

            Psychologists believe we are evolutionarily designed to make our mate choices based on how much someone looks like us, and no, this is not based on any investments they have in genetic testing companies.  Neither are they referring to those couples who dress in matching ensembles.  Not even they have the words, much less the grant money to help shed light on that disturbing mystery. 

            Psychologists say that studies with altered images of participants and their partners have shown that we are most attracted to faces that look 22 percent like ourselves.  Participants did not recognize their own faces in these morphs, proving that the attraction occurred at a subconscious level.  The studies did not reveal what the remaining 78 percent of the morphs looked like, but if you’ve seen one morph, you’ve seen one morph too many.  The same thing has been said about psychologists.

            Parents have also been shown to play more of a role in mate choice than providing criticism.  Studies have shown that they also provide sexual imprinting from an early age, and that as adults we often look for the face of our parents in our partners, particularly where there has been a high degree of emotional closeness.  If you were closer to your parents dog than your parents however, it could explain why you’re more likely to get maced than kissed on first dates.

            Still more studies have shown that we find familiar faces more attractive than distinctive ones, mainly because our minds find them easier to process.  And unless you’re the type that makes mirrors crack when you look into them, no faces are easier to process than our own.  Called the Familiarity Effect, it kind of makes me wonder where Picasso got his mirrors when he painted his self-portraits.  I prefer not to think about what his partners looked like.

            Something called ingroup bias, wherein we subconsciously prefer to date within our own culture or race, can also affect how our partners can come to look more like our siblings.  Psychologists found that such preferences are often influenced by our social network.  Social networks that include psychologists, however, often influence people to expand their networks.

            The psychologists rest their case.

            Parents believe we are evolutionarily designed to listen to them in all major choices, in direct proportion to the amount of inheritance we might be expecting.

            The parents rest their case.

            I believe, based on my own extensive field research when I was much younger, that we are evolutionarily designed to choose our partners at bars just before closing time, regardless of their traits, their looks, or any parental threats.

            I’d like to rest my case, but my wife has just reopened it.  

How Many Trees Can’t We See?

A long time ago, probably before anybody really thought about what they were doing, our ancestors lived in the trees.  Trees gave them everything they needed then.  But everything isn’t always enough, especially when your only dreams are of falling.  So eventually they came down, their dreams evolved to include world domination, and they went on their merry way, migrating across the land.  I think many people today would agree that this was a wise decision.  I know I have a hard time imagining nearly eight billion people still living in the trees.  It might be fun for a while, but when the trees lost their leaves in the fall it would have to be a pretty disturbing sight. 

            The thing is, trees were there when our ancestors needed them.  Now, it seems, trees aren’t there.  They’re somewhere else.  Or so says Songlin Fei, professor of Forestry at Purdue University, who has been going around warning us that many trees are migrating.  Now I’m aware that this might be viewed favorably by those who believe that the only good tree is a log.  Some time back, President Reagan spoke pointedly for this side when he said, “A tree’s a tree.  How many trees do you need to see?”  And truthfully, nobody had an answer to this question.  But it was enough to get others to ask, How much oxygen do you need to see?  So perhaps thanks to this unexpected interest in zen koans, at least both sides could agree that when it comes to trees, numbers matter.

            I must confess though that this news took me completely by surprise.  I just wasn’t prepared for migratory trees.  I guess I’ve sort of gotten used to trees being where I remembered them.  And if it comes to it, I’m especially not prepared for scientists going around putting tracking tags on the 60,000 tree species of the world to see where they’re going.  But if history tells us anything, I think we need to be prepared for the worst. 

            Sure, things have been getting bad for the trees for quite some time, and we’ve been looking the other way.  I guess that’s why we didn’t see them moving.  But from 350 million years ago when trees first became worthy of the name, to 12,000 years ago when axes first became worthy of the name, trees had it made in the shade.  All the best paleobotanists agree there was no better time to be a tree.  They were perfectly adapted to their environment and they knew it, though there might have been some who wished for a few less beavers.  Who doesn’t?  But you would not find trees trying to eke out a living in the desert for instance, or in the ocean.  They knew their place and the world was better for it.

            Around 12,000 years ago, humans finally realized their place in the world too, and it was to take every other plant and animal’s place.  Axes and agriculture helped, and so did their new philosophy that adapting to the environment was a sign of weakness.  But there were only four million people in the world then, and over six trillion trees.  As this meant that there were about 1 ½ million trees per person, the numbers game still strongly favored the trees.  Humans, however, had something else the trees apparently didn’t have then – freedom of movement.  So before you know it, 12,000 years had passed, along with 54 percent of the world’s trees and any chance they would take humans back.  Their numbers are now shrinking so fast they should be forgiven if they were to ask, How many humans are too many?

            While we’re all engaging in fun riddles and playing the numbers game in one way or another, what I want to ask is, How many trees CAN’T we see?  At the rate things are going, if you’re one of those people who hasn’t been able to see the forest for the trees, you could soon be asking, How many trees does it take to make a forest?  Forty percent of all tree species are expected to go extinct in the next 25 years.  Fifteen billion trees are cut down per year, primarily for industrial agriculture, mining, timber harvesting, and human infrastructure expansion.  Even trees can do the math with these numbers. 

            Today, with three trillion trees in the world and 7.75 billion people, there are now only 347 trees per person.  Hug them while you can, because at the current rate of deforestation you will soon have to join a tree safari to find them.  And that’s not factoring in wildfires or other climate change induced losses.  Which brings us back to Professor Fei and others who have observed that due to climate change, many of the remaining trees are migrating poleward.  Fei himself studied 86 tree species in the Eastern U.S. and noted that in the last 35 years, 62 percent are heading north.  If they’re making for the Canadian border, I hope they have their papers ready, because the risk of being turned into paper remains high.

            I wish the trees all the luck in the world on their journeys.  Trees take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, thus doing far more to tackle climate change then we can ever do by talking about it.  If they want to migrate, I’m certainly not going to stand in their way.  I may even plant a few, and encourage others to do the same.  However I will not buy that hammock I’ve had my eye on until I know for sure that the trees are here to stay.

Pigeons vs City People

In the countryside where I live, people generally have a fleeting but positive view of birds.  We live our lives and they live theirs, or they would if the birdwatchers would ever leave them alone.  We live in our houses and they live in the trees and shrubs, so at least even the non-birdwatchers know where to look when they want to see one.  Birds, anyway, know their place in nature, which is more than I can say for many people.  

            It doesn’t take a perch on the Empire State Building to notice that city people have a much different view of birds.  And of nature.  This is because they have almost no view of trees and shrubs.  All they have a view of really is pigeons, which live everywhere from high building ledges to underfoot, and on all the statues in between.  To city people, nature consists only of pigeons.

            This is not a view that has worked out well for either pigeons or humans.  Or nature, for that matter.  Familiarity breeds contempt, as they say, but in the city it also breeds more pigeons.  So many there aren’t enough statues to go around, which results in flocks upon flocks of pigeons just milling about not knowing what to do.  This is never a good thing in any species,  but it’s especially bad for one whose only role model gets its sex education from TV shows like ‘Sex in the City.’

            Without any instruction whatsoever in the finer details of mating, pigeons have taken reproduction to levels that astound even the mathematicians, never mind the biologists.  For one thing, unlike mathematicians and biologists, they breed continuously, apparently making no allowances either for parades or headaches.  Somehow they manage to keep six nests going a year, which results in twelve new pigeons, each of which are ready to mate in only six months.  While biologists blame some sort of new math, and mathematicians blame a new biology, city people blame a new nature that allows two pigeons to grow to one thousand in under two years, and pigeon family gatherings that no amount of statues could ever accommodate.

            For these reasons, city people have taken to calling pigeons rats with wings.  In fact, they aren’t even really pigeons, which shows you how much city people know about nature.  They are rock doves, members of the Columbidae family and a relative of pigeons, but they have been rock doves all along and couldn’t be pigeons any more than city people could be country people.  If you don’t believe me, try relocating a city person to the country yourself someday to see human nature at its most insecticidal.  For the sake of any city people reading this however, I will continue to call them pigeons.  It would do no one any good having them believe country people are against them too.  Unfortunately, I would be remiss if I didn’t tell them that history is not on their side either.

            Personally, I think it’s sad to see how far city people have fallen.  Once upon a time, when they were ancient Greeks, they saw pigeons as a vital part of human culture.  And diets.  But the Greeks knew a multi-talented bird when they saw one, so beyond breeding them for their talents as a food source, they also used them to carry messages, possibly about the world’s first food delivery service.  In addition they bred them for their beauty and for racing events, and they regaled them in art, literature, and religion.  For the average pigeon, these were heady times indeed.

            Most pigeons, however, were above average, which is a pretty neat trick if you think about it.  And as time went along, people even began to realize that pigeons were among the very smartest of birds.  So smart in fact that researchers today say they understand time, and if that doesn’t impress you then you don’t understand time.  I think you know what that means.

            Researchers have also shown that pigeons can identify all the letters of the alphabet, and up to 58 written words, enough, in other words, to get them through kindergarten.  They are also one of the very few animals besides us that can pass the mirror test and identify who they are, enough, in other words, to get them through Philosophy 101.  Still other tests have shown that they can tell the difference between impressionism and cubism in art, enough, in other words, to fool most city people at the museums and galleries.  In other words, most country people couldn’t tell the difference between pigeon brains and city people brains.

            Back before each species was domesticated, pigeons in their natural state lived high among the cliffs of the Middle East and Southern Europe, and city people in their natural state lived in the country.  Eventually some people overcame their love of nature and built big cities, and the pigeons came with them.  The pigeons even got so comfortable believing they were once again living among the high cliffs that they began to test people’s patience.  Meanwhile city people, who are not comfortable anywhere, began to test pigeon’s comfort levels by trapping and selling them to organizers of live pigeon shooting events. 

            To my thinking, all the testing shows is that both species need remedial nature education.  Or predators.  I don’t think they would be acting this way if they knew that nature gives the final exam.

Ferret Legging – You Can Lose More than Your Dignity

Ferret legging contest

If polo is called the sport of kings, then ferret legging should be called the sport of eunuchs.  Should be, but it’s not.  Eunuchs would only take the fun out of this manly sport, much as ferrets could take the manhood out of the man.  As a sport, ferret legging really does not have a lot going for it, but then neither do the men who participate in it.  As for the ferrets, one can only wonder what they ever did to deserve such a fate.

            Ferrets, for those who don’t know, are weasel-like mammals that consist of 34 razor sharp teeth, needle-like claws, and a bunch of other parts that don’t really matter.  Their teeth alone are enough to make them obligate carnivores, which means they can only eat meat, which further means that vegetables are about the only things that can intimidate them.  A group of ferrets is called a business.  Do not do business with a group of ferrets.  Not only is there a reason for the word ferret being derived from a Latin word meaning “little thief,” but there is also a reason for ferrets being called “piranhas with claws.”  They like their business bloody.

Ferret teeth

            Ferrets were first domesticated in Greece 2,500 years ago, around the time the Greeks were running out of new ideas.  Had ferrets known what lay in store for them, they probably would have bit the hands that fed them.  At first they were put to work killing rats, when the Greeks realized the futility of waiting for cats to work.  When this proved successful, they were employed to hunt rabbits, where they excelled at flushing them out of their tight, dark burrows.  As hunting was their sole purpose in life anyway, they likely considered this a fair trade for food and housing, and didn’t much notice the dignity they were losing by being domesticated.  But all that was a long time before the 1970’s, when the loss of dignity became the main goal instead of a side effect.  This was the era that gave us disco, bell bottoms, feathered hair, John Travolta, 1st AND 2nd hand smoke, and ferret legging.

            If you have never heard of ferret legging before, it’s probably because you only read the work of respectable writers.  Or because animal rights groups have been united in their efforts to stop a sport they consider a cruel way of stripping ferrets of any shred of dignity they have remaining.  I am neither a respectable writer nor an animal rights activist, yet I still find ferret legging so horrifying that I have to give you fair warning – stop reading now, go hug your dog or cat, and forget that you ever heard about it.  Or the 1970s.

            OK then, if you’re reading on, I suggest you take a stiff drink, make sure there are no ferrets in the vicinity, and cross your legs anyway.  Ferret legging is the unnatural sport whereby contestants vie to see who can keep two live ferrets in their pants the longest.  It naturally was invented in an English pub after patrons began to get bored with drunken darts.  The rules are simple.  No underwear can be worn, pants must be loose enough for the ferrets to move about, and the pants are tied off at the ankles and waist.  White pants are recommended as they tend to show blood better.  It is also advisable that contestants not plan on having children, not be in a relationship, and not have anything left to live for.  Winners though, will not only get bragging rights, but free drinks and free transportation to the hospital or psychiatric clinic of their choosing.  

            Why ferret leggers haven’t also thought of shoving a rat or rabbit in their pants to liven things up I’ll never know, seeing that the winner is basically the man who can suffer the longest.  In this respect it is almost enough to make ferret legging be thought of as the sport of Buddhists, whose first noble truth is that “life is suffering.”  I’m fairly sure though that not in a Buddhist’s wildest meditations would he or she conclude that the path to Nirvana and the freedom from suffering involved sticking vicious animals in your pants, although it must feel like you’re getting close when you pull them out.         

            In what must be considered an oversight, no ferret legger has ever won the Darwin Award for most creative attempt to remove oneself from the gene pool.  Granted, competition for this award is always intense, but when Reg Mellor managed to keep two ferrets in his pants for 5 ½ hours, blowing away the previous record of 90 minutes, he should have been given something more than bandages and the title King of the Ferret Leggers.  Reg was a simple man however, and would have been happy with the fifteen minutes of fame he enjoyed if he hadn’t been so busy recuperating.

Darwin award example

            The same cannot be said about ferrets.  That no one ever talks about their suffering is the real crime of this sport.  If you think I’m exaggerating, I dare you to think about putting yourself in their place.  As I’m quite sure you would not consider this a path to Nirvana, cheap thrills, or even to anyone’s heart, it’s a good bet the ferrets don’t either.  But while humans think nothing of sacrificing their dignity, and have almost elevated this to a sport in itself, ferrets did not evolve this way.  And neither did they evolve psychological coping mechanisms, or a tolerance for alcohol.  Once upon a time, self-respect meant everything to them, and the Way of the Ferret was far from naked humans.  Now, it seems, humans have found a new way to take animals down with them.

It’s a Small Brain After All

I’m sure most readers would agree with me that brains are important, and not just because they allow us to think that we’re smarter than we are.  Brains take up nearly half the volume of our heads, so without them our heads would be only half the size they are now and we would look ridiculous.  But as important as it is to look good, we would also be certain to lose our bragging rights to first place in the animal intelligence rankings and have to drop down with the sponges, clams, jellyfish, and those humans who don’t have the brains they were born with.  Higher order animals would be sure to notice the change and not hesitate to get revenge by pushing us out of the habitats we’ve taken from them.  This is mere speculation however.  Leeches have 32 brains and where has it gotten them?

            So brains are complicated.  In humans, the senses take in information about the world and feed it to the brain, which then either stores it in the form of memories, processes it in intelligent, creative, or emotional ways, or blames a politician.  These latter brains possibly have more of a kinship with the leeches than has been studied.  One thing that’s clear however is that not all brains work the same.  Some work far beyond the 40 hour work week and accomplish great things, while others should be arrested for vagrancy, impersonating a brain, or outright treason.  Some unfortunate ones are forced to spend too much time in the repair shop, or even in prison.  Still others may find themselves at a Journey concert.  These at least have a choice, and they should probably choose to think about early retirement before some of the senses make the decision for them.

            Most of the working brains understand that our planet is in peril.  But now, just when our planet needs us to put our brains together and show it what they’re made of, the truth comes out.  They’re made of 80 percent water, and they appear to be leaking.  The truth is that our brains shrink as we age when our neurons start making their way to the exits well before the game is over.  That they start doing this at age 20 should give both us and our planet plenty of cause to worry.  It means that as the average age of our population has steadily increased, the average brain is often left to wonder what game they’re even playing.

            It’s the Game of Life, the scientists remind us with their own shrinking brains, and there may be more cause for worry.  They say they have recently discovered that human brains shrank 3,000 years ago, and they have been scrambling like there’s no tomorrow to figure out why, if they’re still shrinking, and if it’s affecting our intelligence.  Given that tomorrows are already on the endangered list, I figure they better hurry while they still have something left to work with themselves.  If our brains shrink much further not even the insanity defense will be able to save us.

            So far the leading theory seems to suggest that it’s all because our brains wanted more than our hunter-gatherer ancestors could give them.  Once we started creating civilizations, we began domesticating ourselves, and you know as well as I do what happens to domesticated animals.  They get bored and complacent, and stand around a lot trying to remember the difference between nature and the slaughterhouse, or freedom and subservience. 

It’s a fact that all domestic animals have smaller brains than their wild ancestral kin.  It is thought that domestication results in smaller brains over time because they don’t have much to do besides recognizing the dinner bell, the electric fence, and its own neutered mating urges.  Big brains were an energy drain and were no longer needed.  In humans, searching for food in the refrigerator kept getting easier, as did avoiding predators in the home and finding mates at the bar.  The upshot is that shared cultures and labor divisions mean that we now rely on collective intelligence, so individually we too don’t have to think as much for ourselves.  

            Now I’m sure there are those who think that my brain has been on a permanent vacation, but let me assure you that it came back to work upon hearing this news.  The ever increasing influence of automation, social media, and autocrats means that our brains have less and less to do, which means that relying on our collective intelligence is like relying on glaciers to grow as our planet heats up.  Whether we’re relying on one or a bunch of shrinking brains to help doesn’t improve the view of the glaciers.  They’re still disappearing.

            Slow down, say some scientists.  There is only a weak correlation between brain size and intelligence.  It’s still a correlation, say other scientists, pointing not only to the persistent Journey fan base, but also to the continued steep decline in IQ test results over the past thirty years.

            I have never seen my brain this worried before.  Everywhere you look brains and intelligence are shrinking.  Almost as much as our memories of a stable climate or a stable democracy.  My brain, in fact, is telling me that if they shrink any further they may be forced to become wards of the State.

(Note: I apologize for the depressing nature of this piece. It’s not at all how I figured it would go. I think it started OK, but then Ukraine happened, and things don’t seem so funny now.)

I’m Only Half the Man I Thought I Was

OK, so I woke up this morning and it sure seemed like a typical day.  I mean, I felt like myself, as near as I could tell.  Not that I ever felt that I really KNEW myself, if you know what I mean, but I was pretty sure I could still recognize myself in the mirror at least.  Every day’s an adventure they say, and you have to start somewhere.  So that’s what I did, and I have to be honest here, I didn’t like what I saw looking back at me.  Like I said, it seemed like a typical day. 

            I shrugged off the usual disappointment and went to get breakfast, which was when I began to like myself even less.  And it wasn’t the tequila sunrise with the Sugar Smacks and espresso that did it.  It was the first article I turned to in the new issue of “Science Bites” that nearly caused me to swallow the rest of the tequila, along with a whole bottle of probiotics.  Without any warning whatsoever the very first sentence made the startling claim that we humans are not all human.  Even more surprisingly it did not limit this claim to my neighbors, or anyone in political office.

            Then the very next sentence took that bombshell and exploded it, saying that only about half the cells that make up our bodies are actually human cells!  At this point, my brain started churning, my heart started thumping, and my gut began doing somersaults, which only made matters worse.  Were they doing these things because they were typical human responses to frightening news, or because these particular organs were afraid of being discovered as nonhuman intruders?  How was I supposed to know?  How could I even know who “I” was?  And if I wasn’t myself, who was I?

            If you’re finding yourself as shaken as I was at this point, and reaching for that tequila, all I can say is don’t, at least until you can determine which half is asking for it.  And don’t bother turning to Socrates for help either.  “Know thyself,” he advised, when he clearly should have said, “Know half of thyself, and don’t trust thy other half, particularly around strong spirits.”  My only choice was to keep reading, and trust that science could tell me who I was or who I wasn’t, and if aliens were involved.  My suspicions immediately turned to my gut, if for nothing else than for its ability to produce some truly unearthly gases.

            Clearly heedless of my intestinal distress, the scientists went on to say that from our heads to our feet, our bodies are home to trillions of microscopic alien invaders.  But don’t worry, they explain, none are extraterrestrial, although they didn’t sound quite so worry-free themselves when they noted that their purpose appears to be to take over management.  I confess I didn’t quite know what to make of this either at first, beyond my gut instinct that management has long been in need of a change.

            But when they confirmed my suspicions that Command Center for these aliens IS our guts, I didn’t know whether to make myself another highball or a high colonic.  Who, exactly, are we taking orders from, our minds or a bunch of alien stomach bugs with big plans?  And what do the little buggers want with us anyway?  So many questions and I can’t even trust my gut.  That means from here on out I’m only trusting my brain, which I’m fairly sure runs on tequila, not microbes.

            Now if you’ve got a brain anything like mine, you may be a bit tipsy about now, but you probably also believe that microorganisms such as bacteria are essentially domestic terrorists, and that antibiotics are the special forces we send in to take them out.  Don’t be so trigger happy, warn the scientists, telling us that our gut is home to whole communities of these microorganisms, abiding peacefully for the most part while they live, reproduce, go to work, and die, the same as we do, but without television or the internet.  Which means, they add, unlike us, they’re totally committed to their job, which is to keep us healthy by regulating our immune system, manufacturing vitamins, and digesting all the food and food-like substances we eat!  When they put it that way, it just doesn’t seem right that we thank them with Taco Bell, doughnuts, antimicrobial soap, and antibiotics.  I’m curious to know how they feel about tequila, or prune juice. 

            Isn’t it just like our human half to misunderstand aliens and treat them like they don’t belong.  The scientists even go so far as to say that we’re shooting ourselves in the gut, because they believe now that our mistreatment of these microbes is quite possibly the cause of skyrocketing health problems like allergies, autoimmune diseases, depression, autism, Parkinson’s, dementia, and even obesity.  They do see a light at the end of the digestive tunnel though.  That’s because the rear end justifies the means, so to speak, and they have been seeing positive results in treating many of these and other health problems with, are you ready, fecal transplants.  This is just what it sounds like, and the reason they also call it bacteriotherapy.  Many, in fact, see this as not only a big step towards a healthy future, but a great way to end a conversation.  Or an essay.  

            Anyway, I for one am now glad that I’m only half the man I thought I was, and I vow to treat my other half with more respect and less tequila.  It might just be my better half.  Still, I’m glad I don’t have to see it in the mirror.

Greatest Hits of the Enlightenment

The best thing you can really say about the Age of Enlightenment is that it was nice while it lasted.  Sure, it was better than the Dark Ages, but what wasn’t?  In any case I have to wonder where it all got us in the end.  To my thinking, without the Age of Enlightenment, we would still be a long way from the end.

            The Age of Enlightenment can be considered to have begun with Francis Bacon (1561 – 1626) and the scientific revolution of the 17th century.  Bacon is considered the Father of Empiricism, and disputed the long held belief that if sufficiently clever people discussed a subject long enough, they were certain to come upon either the truth or a deadly weapon.  Bacon opined that truth required evidence, although he had no evidence to support this.  In 1603, Bacon was knighted for his work by King James I and appointed keeper of the great seal, which greatly improved his standing among the lesser seals.

            Bacon’s empiricism gave birth to Isaac Newton (1642 – 1726), considered the Father of Science, thus also somehow making Newton the father of Bacon.  Don’t ask, they did things differently then.  Even today, thanks to his work in mathematics, physics, optics, and astronomy, he is consistently voted the most influential scientist of all time.  Thanks to his insecurities, depression, violent temper, and proven ability to destroy the reputation of anyone who criticized him, he is also usually voted the scientist you would least like to be stuck on a deserted island with.  Newton was so far ahead of his time that he was the first scientist to be buried in Westminster Abbey.

            The main reason though for this period in history being called the Age of Enlightenment is because it was full of philosophers.  You pretty much couldn’t throw a stone without hitting one, which is just what people were warned would happen if they stopped doing that.  Not since ancient Greece had deep thinking been this popular and produced so few casualties.  Everyone and his brother believed themselves philosophers now and there was nothing you could do about it.  Thinking had become the new stoning.  It was starting to be understood that if you could throw a bunch of philosophers at a problem, there was about a 50 percent chance you’d either get results or more problems.  At the time these were thought to be great odds.

            Rene Descartes (1596 – 1650) has been known as the Father of Modern Philosophy ever since he rescued it from the streets of Paris and gave it a good home.  Descartes was a Rationalist, and reasoned that if you weren’t a father, then you had no business trying to understand anything about life, particularly the nature of existence and the relationship of the mind to the body.  To these points, Descartes mind said, “What relationship?  I think, therefore I am in little need of a body.”  To which Descartes body replied, “Well if his mind expects me to make the first move, forget about it.  Bodies have gotten along just fine without minds for centuries.”  This is an example of a rational argument.  Descartes believed in free will and thinking for oneself, up to a point.  The church made sure he was aware of that point.  Descartes body died in Sweden, but his mind lives on in modern philosophers who need to get out more.

            Thomas Hobbes (1588 – 1679) is known as the Father of Modern Political Philosophy.  Early enlightened thinkers believed you can never have too many fathers.  This was considered a good joke among early enlightened mothers.  Hobbes believed that people by nature are selfish, fearful, violent, and lacking in good morals and good hygiene, and that without a strong central authority, the life of man would be nasty, brutish, and short.  All women, whether enlightened or not, believed this had the makings of a good joke too.

            John Locke (1632 – 1704) shattered the idea that philosophers needed to be fathers, and so never married.  This is considered one of his greatest achievements.  Locke was born in England, which was one of the few countries not embroiled in the thirty years war, and so argued that people were naturally cooperative and reasonable.  He believed that Hobbes just got up on the wrong side of the bed.  He also believed that when people were born, their minds were a blank slate.  In hindsight we can confirm that for many people, this was about the best that could be hoped for.  Locke also strongly argued for the rights to life, liberty, religious tolerance, and a government by the consent of the people.  These ideas went over big in America, especially once all the blank slates eventually came to believe they meant something completely different.

            Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712 – 1778) is known as the Father of the French Revolution because people have a short memory.  Oddly enough he died before giving birth.  Rousseau was famous for stating in The Social Contract that “man is born free yet everywhere is in chains,” his 1762 broadside on inequality.  This and Emile, his critique on the education system, won him exile and accusations of being the antichrist, when all he really wanted was for people to like him.  They loved him later in the French Revolution when he wasn’t around to critique it.

            The Age of Enlightenment came to a sudden end in 1793 with the Reign of Terror.  For obvious reasons, this is considered the beginning of the Romantic Period.

Is Connecticut Funny?

The following story is true, only the events have been changed to protect me from lawsuits, brickbats, and evil curses.  Names are real however, and nobody is innocent, particularly me.

            I recently came across an opinion piece in a prominent state newspaper with the provocative heading, “Why isn’t Connecticut funnier?”  Imagine my surprise and anger to find that it was written by a self-described humorist, from a neighboring state no less.  I shall not dignify either the state or the writer by mentioning names.  Take my word for it, neither are as funny as Connecticut, and when’s the last time you ever heard me lie or exaggerate?  But I cannot in good conscience sit here without defending the state I’m in.  (That would be Connecticut, not any of the more worrisome states I’m often accused of being in.)  It is never funny to attack a state in this manner.  And it certainly should never be done without first checking to see if it is armed.

            Let me say this at the outset, Connecticut has been well-armed with funny people ever since those nutty colonialists laughed themselves silly listening to newcomers trying to pronounce the name they had just given their new state.  Later on came Jonathan Edwards, East Windsor native and fiery revivalist preacher who was also possibly one of the first Puritans to look closely at themselves, and to understand God’s sense of humor.  Even from God’s perspective it must have seemed like Jonathan came right out of Comedy Central with the way he could drop such prayers as, “God, stamp eternity on my eyeballs!”  And isn’t humor all about perspective anyway?  Take Nathan Hale of Coventry, who, while standing in front of a decidedly hostile audience, got off a zinger in “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.”  That one must have had the Tories rolling in the aisles long after they hung him.

            Now most reasonable people agree that the Civil War was not a funny time.  No states were at their best then.  But even the estimable and usually deadly serious John Brown of Torrington had his moments.  Like most Connecticutters?  Connectictians?  Connecticutites? John could bring the funny when needed most, as when he came through for Connecticut with his unforgettable quip, “The United States is a place where the men govern, but the women rule.”  This rib tickler undoubtedly had every woman from Elizabeth Cady Stanton to the current members of NOW in hysterics as they struggled for women’s rights that weren’t dictated by men.  

            Jumping ahead, who can ever forget that the funniest U.S. President, George W. Bush, was born right here in New Haven.  Comedians everywhere have always been envious of his material, and books have been filled with such classics as “I know the human being and fish can coexist peacefully,” and “Rarely is the question asked, is our children learning?”  It’s almost a shame he was limited to a two-term engagement, as he seemed to be just finding his comedic groove.  And while we’re in the political humor arena, otherwise known as the Major Leagues of Comedy, what about Roger Stone of Norwalk?  The man not only looks like he walked straight out of a 1950s comic strip, but every time he opens his mouth, he adds laughable reinforcement to that hilarious observation from P.T. Barnum of Bethel that “There’s a sucker born every minute.”

            I could go on.  But for a state that’s generally viewed as merely a highway bathroom stop between New York City and Boston, I’d say we got the last laugh after we closed them.  And I must disagree with the writer’s denigration of the Nutmeg State moniker.  To me, it’s pure comic genius, likely thought up by the same person who had the idea of calling our State Animal the sperm whale.  Just thinking about all the tourists who come here looking for tropical nutmeg trees and sperm whales is enough to make me laugh for days.  Just thinking about tourists in Connecticut at all gives me quite a chuckle too.

            I thought it was really hitting below the belt though to criticize the shape of Connecticut, in particular the little stubby foot that sticks into New York, as the writer says, like it’s trying to sneak onto the big stage.  This little New York joke is all wrong.  That stubby foot is Greenwich, and it’s where Connecticut puts its wealthiest residents, who also happen to be the most in need of humor, so that they’ll have something to laugh at.  We’re considerate that way, and don’t believe that karmic laws should stand in the way of one’s equal rights to humor.  To prove I’m not biased, I’ll leave it to readers to judge which state motto is funniest, New York’s “Excelsior,” or Connecticut’s “Qui Transtulit Sustinet.”  Personally, I think ours is three times funnier, and I don’t even know Latin.

            In conclusion, I’m quite certain the evidence shows that we have the highest humor density of all the states.  I’ll mention a few funny people here just to make my case that we are well-armed indeed, and not afraid to fight back.

  • Mike Reiss, Bristol: Writer and producer of “The Simpsons”
  • Norman Lear, New Haven: Creator of “All in the Family” and other sitcom classics
  • Seth MacFarlane, Kent: Writer and creator of “Family Guy,” and many more shows and movies that have been called hysterical, among other words
  • Colin McEnroe, Hartford: Radio host and author of “Swimming Chickens”
  • Regina Barreca, (Brooklyn, NY, but she wasn’t funny until she moved to Connecticut): Author of “They Used to Call Me Snow White, but I Drifted”
  • Mark Twain, (OK, so he wasn’t born in Connecticut either, and in fact has been dead for many years, unless those reports of his death really are greatly exaggerated.  But he also called Connecticut home.  I won’t mention the other things he called it.)