Language use by non-human animals

I came across an interesting video debunking the idea that Koko the gorilla actually used sign language:

I don’t have the expertise to fully evaluate this on my own, but it accords with the theory which I have heard that it is more plausible that Koko was trained to respond to prompts from trainers than that she expressed her own thoughts and used language in any kind of sophisticated way.

Nevertheless, it remains a fascinating question whether inter-species communication will ever be possible with non-human beings who do seem to use sophisticated communication, such as whales, dolphins, and great apes. The question of whether they are capable is different from the question of whether we know how to help them do it. Maybe one day we will find techniques that allow them to express what they say to each other in a form that people can understand.

P.S. A great recent episode of the Ologies podcast discusses acoustic ecology.


I watched the four-part Netflix series on the Three Mile Island disaster and found it to be well crafted and emotionally poignant, though only OK as an educational resource on the partial meltdown.

My technical complaint is that they explain almost nothing about why the accident happened and exactly what took place while it was going on. There is a lot of interesting material on how complex systems have interactions which cannot be foreseen, as well as user interface issues in the control room, which would have helped viewers better understand.

In terms of storytelling, my objection is with how the filmmakers basically set up two kinds of interview subjects: forthright and emotional local residents who suffered, and a few wicked representatives of the industry. They quote dismissive claims about culpability and the accident’s severity from the insiders, while uncritically quoting residents on how an unchecked disaster would have destroyed Pensyllvania or the East Coast. To me this all felt like too much handholding about who to believe, coupled with insufficient reference to credible outside accounts.

I wouldn’t especially recommend the series to either people who know a lot about nuclear energy or those who know fairly little. The former are likely to be annoyed at how anecdote-driven the whole thing is, while the latter may be given a false sense of confidence about the correctness of the view expressed. Unlike the remarkable 2019 series on the Chernobyl accident, this is one that can be safely missed.

For better explanations on TMI, I would suggest Nickolas Means’s talk (which also contains some fascinating discussion about what human error means in the context of major industrial accidents and how to investigate them after the fact) or this Inviting Disaster episode from The History Channel.

Ginsburg documentary

After today’s three presentations on my research — and the surprise discovery of another very pertinent U of T PhD dissertation which I will read tomorrow — I learned that through the library I have access to the Kanopy streaming service and watched the RBG documentary which was the first thing recommended. It’s rightly praised as very well done, and I learned a lot about her life.

The fine points of minuting meetings

The British comedic TV series’ Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister — as well as being extremely funny — make some acute and accurate points about politics. One quote from the episode “The Quality of Life” is an arguably cynical, arguably tragically accurate summary of the relationship between civil servants and politicians.

Today, while pondering how to interpret some specific bits of activist decision-making and analysis, I was reminded of another gem from series 2 of YPM: “Official Secrets:”

Bernard Woolley: The problem is, the prime minister did try to suppress the chapter, didn’t he?

Sir Humphrey Appleby: I don’t know. Did he?

BW: Well, didn’t he? Don’t you remember?

HA: What I remember is irrelevant Bernard. If the minutes don’t say that he did, then he didn’t.

BW: So you want me to falsify the minutes?

HA: I want nothing of the sort! It’s up to you Bernard, what do you want?

BW: I want to have a clear conscience.

HA: A clear conscience?

BW: Yes!

HA: When did you acquire this taste for luxuries? Consciences are for politicians, Bernard! We are humble functionaries whose duty it is to implement the commands of our democratically elected representatives. How could we possibly be doing anything wrong if it has been commanded by those who represent the people?

BW: Well, I can’t accept that, Sir Humphrey, “No man is an island.”

HA: I agree Bernard! No man is an island, entire of itself. And therefore, never send to know for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for thee, Bernard!

BW: So what do you suggest, Sir Humphrey?

HA: Bernard, the minutes do not record everything that was said at a meeting do they?

BW: Well, no, of course not.

HA: And people change their minds during a meeting, don’t they?

BW: Well, yes.

HA: So the actual meeting is a mass of ingredients for you to choose from.

BW: Oh, like cooking.

HA: Like, no, not like cooking. Better not to use that word in connection with books or minutes. You choose from a jumble of ill-digested ideas a version which represents the prime minister’s views as he would, on reflection, have liked them to emerge.

BW: But if it’s not a true record…

HA: The purpose of minutes is not to record events, it is to protect people. You do not take notes if the prime minister says something he did not mean to say — particularly if it contradicts something he has said publicly. You try to improve on what has been said, put it in a better order. You are tactful.

BW: But how do I justify that?

HA: You are his servant.

BW: Oh, yes.

HA: A minute is a note for the records and a statement of action if any that was agreed upon. Now, what happened at the meeting in question?

BW: Well, the book was discussed and the solicitor general advised there were no legal grounds for suppressing it.

HA: And did the prime minister accept what the solicitor general had said?

BW: Well, he accepted the fact that there were no legal grounds for suppression… but

HA: He accepted the fact that there were no legal grounds for suppression. You see?

BW: Oh!

HA: Is that a lie?

BW: No

HA: Can you write it in the minutes?

BW: Yes

HA: How’s your conscience?

BW: Much better! Thank you Sir Humphrey.

Or, as put later by Linton Barwick in the 2009 satirical film “In the Loop“:

Linton Barwick: Get a hold of those minutes. I have to correct the record.

Bob Adriano: We can do that?

LB: Yes, we can. Those minutes are an aide-mémoire for us. They should not be a reductive record of what happened to have been said, but they should be more a full record of what was intended to have been said. I think that’s the more accurate version, don’t you?

Obviously in these cases there is a clear political purpose being served in presenting the minutes a particular way, but the problem of interpretation is intractable even with no such agenda. Humphrey is quite right to say that minutes which are not verbatim require decisions from the person writing them, and it is as true in political conversations as in talks between friends or lovers that people who take part in the same conversation can come away from it with quite different recollections about what each party tried to say and what was decided.

Wooster’s greatest perils: the eligibly unwed

Jeeves: And if, in consequence, Mr. Winship should lose the election…

Wooster: I imagine democracy would survive the blow Jeeves.

J: The talk in the servants’ hall Sir is that Lady Florence has informed Mr. Winship that if he does not win the electon their engagement will be at an end.

W: Good God! You mean, Florence will once again be roaming the land thirsting for confetti and a three-tiered cake.

J: Indeed Sir.

W: And she may once more turn her attention to faithful old Wooster.

From Jeeves and Wooster season 4 episode 6 “The Ties that Bind” starring Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry.

Listening to the Abel espionage case

Because of its restrained and historically accurate storytelling, Bridge of Spies is one of my favourite films.

Looking for something a bit meatier than podcasts to listen to on my exercise walks, I am trying out an Audible account with James Donovan’s Strangers on a Bridge: The Case of Colonel Abel. It’s the perfect kind of book for someone overly preoccupied with an academic project, insofar as it is interesting and detailed enough to be mentally engaging as well as mercifully unrelated to any work I need to do.

3D printing in metal and at large scale

Producing items additively by combining small pieces instead of starting with unshaped materials and cutting into them offers many intriguing possibilities, most notably the ability to make structures which would be implausible or impossible to make via conventional techniques and the option to customize every item produced to the dimensions and other specifications chosen.

This video from the architecture and furniture design group MX3D gives a sense of what is becoming possible:

See also: Feast Your Eyes Upon the World’s First 3D-Printed Steel Bridge

Clone High

A friend recommended the cartoon “Clone High” so I have gone through the first few episodes. Early on and repeatedly I noticed how the relationships between the characters are a lot like those in Archie comics.

Abraham Lincoln is the straight man or the stand-in for the reader. Like Archie, his main emotional drive is dealing with two different possible romantic or sexual partners. He has humanizing weaknesses which are meant to endear him to the audience and make him a protagonist who they enjoy seeing win. It’s easier to cheer for a down-and-outer (like Bruce Willis’ character in Die Hard or Sarah Connor at the beginning of Terminator) than for a character already recognized within the fictional world as excellent and likely to succeed. For one thing, such characters are less threatening because some aspect of their deficiency is emphasized. For another, there is little drama in a plot where it’s obvious from the outset and never inverted or called into question that particular characters will win out.

Joan of Arc is like Bettty. Her top choice of partner is Abe/Archie, but she is rarely that person’s most desired choice. She’s sometimes morally torn about opportunities to advance her interests in underhanded ways, but chooses the noble option. She’s also obviously the more attractive partner from any caring or generosity perspective, as seen by the audience, but is universally seen in-world as much less attractive than her somewhat sociopathic but glamorous classmate. She’s the sort who does humdrum volunteer work at a soup kitchen or animal shelter and then never tells anyone.

Cleopatra is like Veronica. She’s overwhelmingly interested in herself and romantically most inclined to pursue whoever seems to be socially on top at the moment. Generally she is drawn to JFK/Reggie, being unbothered by his questionable behaviour but drawn to his popularity and stature. She’s happy to lie and scheme to get what she wants, and has the benefit that most of her classmates are too starstruck around her to properly maintain their judgment.

JFK is like Reggie — arrogant and popular, but not necessarily smart. He can usually count on Cleopatra/Veronica to pursue him and is sometimes in rivalry with Archie/Abe. If that happens, it’s likely that Reggie/JFK’s approach will be underhanded in some way, Archie/Abe will probably pursue a less-promising-seeming but more upstanding approach, and as a narrative “surprise” the underdog who played by the rules wins out. It’s not much of a surprise given the narrative structure of the show and comic, but it’s not what the characters in the story expect to see happen during the peak action.

You could say the controversial and obviously somewhat offensive and annoying Gandhi character is the version of Jughead in Clone High, except that here he is desperately desirous of sexual partners but inept at persuading them, as opposed to indifferent or hostile to potential sexual partners but somehow highly attractive (at least to some) as a result. Here’s generally there to be someone with comic quirks who is never a serious contender in any of the recurrent love triangles between Abe-Archie-Betty-Cleopatra-JFK-Joan-Reggie-Veronica.

Perhaps another reason I thought of Archie is because of how all the romantic relationships are about friend-group scheming and not about what the members of the couple actually do directly with each other or alone. It’s more like controlled exposure to the opposite sex in a chaperoned dance held by two boarding schools, and less like the raw emotional and psychological entanglings of real teenage romances. The high school settings and social expectations about comic/cartoon content are sufficient to explain this approach in both cases, but it contributes to the narrative similarity between Archie and Clone High.

I can see why people are big fans of the show. I thoroughly enjoy the pause at the end of each of Mr. Lynn Butlertron’s – the school principal’s robotic butler comic relief character foil – statements where you wait for whether or not there will be a very acoustically pleasing “Wesley” at the end.