Tuesday, December 29

What do baboons got that chimpanzees don't?

When looking at baboon research, a common question arises: Why baboons and not some other species which is smarter and more closely related to humans? Its a question I know that I asked when I began to look into participating in primatology research. The best known of our closest primate relatives is the chimpanzee, an animal which is endangered, but still studied heavily. Why baboons and not chimps?

Well, there are the lame answers - baboons are more common and thus easier to study. They live in more easily accessibly locations, and plenty of them aren't endangered so you don't have to go around worrying so much about protecting their rights when you pick up their poop in the forest, and fly it to the northern hemisphere where you can analyze it.

However, what I (and a slew of others, of course) see as the key difference between baboons and chimpanzees is in the magnitude of their sociability. Chimps are very social animals, of course, but their maximum group size is about 60 to 70 individuals. Baboons, on the other hand, have groups which can be 100 individuals strong. A classic South African baboon book written in the 20's by a naturalist describes a troop of more than three hundred individuals.

This is a pretty big difference. Baboons have smaller brains than chimps, but they know who every individual in a troop is, they know their social rank and relations to others in the hierarchy, and they know who is descended from who, and all kinds of more complex blood relations. Chimps know much of this as well, but baboons are aware of it on effectively double the scale.

So why do we care?

Baboons provide powerful evidence in support of what ethologists call the "social intelligence hypothesis," which basically argues that the enlargement of the human brain was driven by increased complexity in social living and group size. One of the major competing hypotheses argues that increasing technological proclivity drove the development of our brains. Chimps support this hypothesis, as they excel at tool use.

How do the behaviors of two primates, baboons and chimpanzees, compare to those of humans? Humans are highly adept both socially and technologically; scientists of course admit that both factor played key roles, but which influence played the more crucial role in human development? Human maximum group size is on par with that of baboons, and far exceeds that of chimps... For very particular reason which I will get into another time (soon!), human groups should be 3 times as large as chimp groups, yet we manage to form significantly larger stable groups.

Why can we and the baboons manage to exceed expected group size? On the whole, baboons are less intelligent than chimps but still maintain bigger groups - so maybe the mental methods of baboon social intelligence are similar to our own which we use to establish such massive groups. Maybe social intelligence isn't even the most important of the hypotheses, but as long as there are correlates between us and the baboons, we stand to learn something from them about how our brains and behavior are designed to handle the complex social situations we encounter daily.

And that, is why we study baboons.

Wednesday, December 23

Noam, chomp your heart out...

I stumbled across a recent BBC story which discusses a pair of new papers which has found powerful evidence that Campbell's monkeys use syntax. Though their system is simple, they deliberately arrange sounds which modify the meaning of other vocalizations.

Many primatologists rightfully complain about how linguists are constantly shifting the tables against them. When Nim Chimpsky learned the meaning of words but couldn't arrange them together to form meaningful sentences, the results were dismissed. It was also argued that Nim was a poor experimental subject because of his unnatural upbringing and artificial environment. Many linguists appear to wish that language remain an exclusively human attribute, and certain aspects of language unquestionably are. But just where lays the line?

Since researchers have found non-human primates who make use of vocalizations as if they were suffixes (and mere monkeys, as well), primatologists are a step closer to determining precisely what linguistic capabilities other primates possess. This is a pretty neat little finding, and raises questions about how the potential development of language. Campbell's monkeys are far from great apes, so if they do possess stronger language functions than great apes, what does that say about the evolution of language in primate species?

This research was conducted by Klaus Zuberbuehler of St. Andrews and colleagues, and you can read the actual articles here and here. I also like how this stuff is getting published in PLoS ONE. The more legitimacy that journal accumulates, the better.

Be sure to check out the actual vocalizations and their variants on the BBC site.

Thursday, December 17

Live from a field in South Africa, Part II

As promised, I now present to you the long awaited sequel to my previous silly concert post. Big American, or rather, big foreign bands don't tend to bother touring South Africa too often. From what I heard form a couple people I met at the concert, neither Radiohead nor Coldplay, who are both huge and ought to have a big British fanbase here, have ever toured this country. According to The Killers themselves, this is the first time they've been around here.
Oh Brandon Flowers, you shaved your facial hair for us. How conscientious.
Right, so it was The Killers I went to see on a warm Sunday evening at the start of the December summer. As one might expect, the journey was more of a tale than the concert itself was. Here was the scoop - the parking opened at 4. The doors opened at 6. First band started at 7. Killers came on at 8. That was the plan. I went into this thinking that the show itself started at 6 and I was unaware of any openers. It turned out to be a good thing the Killers came on 2.5 hours later than I expected.

As I understand it, Cape Town, or rather, South Africa, does not catch the eye of big-time bands very often. So, when a band at the peak of its popularity comes through and the Capetonians haven't seen a real music act in some time, everyone seems to go. Well, all the British people, anyhow. The other Capetonians go if they like the band. The next day, there were people all over who I'd run into mentioning the concert, offhand. Often, specifically about how blasted they felt from the previous night.

Upon reaching Paarl, the site of this episode's dusty field, I realized I wasn't sure which exit to get off at. After bumbling around for about 20 minutes, I found my "people" and then realized I could just follow them to the source. Unfortunately, the source was a long way away, and the traffic was only moving slower and slower. I was doing passably well since I had the original plays of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy on my player, but then the battery died. Bloody.

At one point, my neighbors directly in front of me left one of their passengers stranded (...20 meters behind) when the traffic abruptly lurched ahead for several seconds. Being the good Samaritan and novel opportunist that I am, I immediately offered to give her a lift... after she asked me for one, of course.

Name was Angela, she goes to UCT, and lives very nearby me. Not a bad deal. So, we chatted about studies and music and what in the blazes some crazy American is doing here.

Allow me a moment of exaltation. I do thoroughly enjoy the camaraderie that springs up amongst fans in such situations. I also like the fact that it quickly disappears to be replaced by harsh animosity when it comes to pushing your way through the crowd.

Angela went back to her car eventually, and the painful traffic subsided somewhat once I exited the highway.
Africa: The Neverending Road fuck ass shit bitch ass
Note to self: When driving to an event whose venue you are not familiar with - its probably best to just do what they tell you. No wait, I can't really be telling myself this. Okay me, nevermind this, I'll figure out what I was really getting at later.

I parked some distance away from the field, not realizing just how far I would need to go. Angela's advice was sadly misinforming. 200 meters was the distance to the road which lead to the field, but the field was some distance further down that road. Some means a lot.

I walked down four stretches of dusty road, alongside the slow stream of motorized vehicles which I barely outpaced. I was not alone, at least, for many had elected to park and walk as I was doing. However, for each turn down a smaller and dustier road, my spirits began to fall. How bloody far away was this place? My retrospective guess is 3 kilometers.
So, to me, the stage looks like an insectoid shaped spaceship with landing lights blasting away while a rapt human crowd looks on, soon to be devoured or enslaved or something.
I arrived at the stage. Like, I said, it was a concert. In my opinion, it is difficult for concert not to be enjoyable when you're going to see a band you like and are familiar with. I wandered about the vast field for a few moments, scoping out the food and beer lines. I was nearly tempted to get in line for a burger, but then Human started playing so to hell with the burger. Flowers was even wearing that silly coat with the furry shoulders.

The crowd was large and packed. Nevertheless, I was able to push quite close to the boundary of the proletarian section. As I wormed closer to the stage, a few times I encountered some small and shrinking holes in the crowd, where everywhere around 'twas a mob. I investigated and found people hurriedly rolling up their blankets and packing their tupperwares away.

At last, revenge is mine!

That's right picnickers, I thought to myself, this is going to be a concert so you best just get up and scram. We want to the make the most of our tickets and have a crowd here, not just sit on towels, sip tea, and munch biscuits. Also, they're called COOKIES.
Do you see this shit? I'm a fucking artistic photographer now. I USE my camera's disgraceful shutter speed to PURPOSEFULLY create cool effects. Seriously guys.
One of the more amusing moments of the concert itself was when you could see the violinist/sequencer guy singing along to the lyrics for everyone to see on the jumbotrons.

Flower's has a really weird voice. I don't think I've ranted about this as much as I ought (as much as I love burger king, for instance). Even when he's just talking, his voice is bizarre. Uniqueness can be a virtue in music, and he can actually sing unlike the majority of "indie rockers." Though he does look like he might be suffering from anorexia.
The set was good. You can judge it here. I think the set was a bit short for what they usually do, but I'm not very sure of this. In anticipation of the part where everyone in the crowd shouts "I've got soul but I'm not a soldier" for 6 minutes during All These Things I've Done, I had my camera out for video. Alas, the memory card murdered this creation. Instead, I have found a superior video montage for you to watch.

So. I'd done my homework and was up to speed on how the Killers do their encores. I wanted out of that place quick, but I did want to see and hear the last songs in the encore. I waited outside the gate where I still had a decent view, then dashed when they finished playing When You Were Young.
And I ran. I would stop occasionally on the way back to hang with some groups of people in order to catch my breath and assuage my fear of being suddenly stabbed to death by some madman hiding in the vineyards. Eventually I reached the outer reaches, where I associated myself with a pair (those mentioned at the beginning) of colored people.

I think they were Indian, but it was hard to tell. There are also the Malay around here, who are not to be confused with Malaysians. Don't do that. We discussed much of the usual stuff like What in the blazes am I doing here and How do you like Cape Town? These two had a much more interesting and refreshing view on Cape Town, but both were still very positive about the city in spite of its dysfunction.

Second note to self: Avoid driving to concerts. You've been spoiled by going to the Palladium. Driving to big events is awful.

Yet, safely succeeded in reaching the car, and from there I drove back to Cape Town for some much desired sleep.  The traffic was likely caught at a bottleneck much closer to the field, for I had no trouble getting back on the highway or riding the N1 back to CT.

...until I accidentally got onto the N7.
I hate the N7.

Friday, December 11

More Final Draw Stuff

While wandering my favorite site for figuring out what is going on in Cape Town, I found a photo gallery and blog post concerning the Final Draw.

...I spotted some incredibly interesting specimens of our “Rainbow Nation”. One man had this monstrous head-gear (see picture) that he managed to keep on his head with either sheer skill or bolts in his skull. I’m going for the bolts. Anyway, it was cool to see that he’d gone through so much effort. There were eggs, flags, pom poms, vuvuzelas and a range of other goodies making up this “hat”, I think I even spied a small child in there. He certainly got the attention he was looking for.

Quite right. Note that this is the same guy I caught on film in the first photo of my own post.

Inspired by this chance reference, I kept looking for other galleries which chronicled the events of the festival. I found a couple more good sources.

Tuesday, December 8

World Cup 2010 Final Draw

Some people (oh you know, a few hundred million) watched the Final Draw for next year's World Cup, which is being held here, in South Africa. I watched it to... sort of. I wasn't one of the lucky few international celebrities and figureheads who sat in the Cape Town International Convention Center (CTICC) where the proper draw took place. However, I was on Long Street, which is where all the real people went for the draw.
It was a Friday, and Fridays can be tiring, but eventually one just learns to buck up and stay up 36 hours if necessary in order to make sure one doesn't miss any of the fun. The Draw had two primary appeals: 1. big party lots of people and mad excitement, 2. some bands (Freshlyground most notably) were going to play for free. I didn't really care about the brackets, though watching other people watch the brackets can be rather enlightening.

So, I grabbed Rainer and we drove into the city center to search for parking. That was fun. We ended up landing a spot in the well-known Bo-Kaap Moslem neighborhood. Pictures the vividly painted Bo-Kaap houses are very often used in tourist paraphernalia promoting Cape Town. I was very much surprised to find the neighborhood four streets away from Long. I was under the impression is was a suburb unto itself, reasonably far out into the reaches.

I was mildly sketched out by parking there, but everyone was parking everywhere and we saw people walking down from much higher up the slope ascending to Table Mountain. This was a special night, and the police were everywhere. If you see police in Cape Town, then I would say you are in a safe place.
they seriously just kept going and going it was intense
The crowds at the entrances and the extremely poor loudspeaker kept us out of the party until we found a back way inside. We arrive about a half hour before the draw business was set to start, so we grabbed some beers from the handy vendors and began to weave closer to the stage at the end of Long Street.
you see that guy on the left with the Brazilian flag? Fuck that loud motherfucker. I don't care how nice of a job they're said to do when you need your roof replaced.
This place was packed, and there were only more people entering the zone. We were later told that more than 120,000 people were in there with us.

Once we had reached a satisfactory position, we settled to enjoy K'Naan's performance. Then the jumbotrons kicked into top gear and we were assaulted with an over dramatic montage of the cup trophy's travels through Africa to reach Cape Town. And then they did some history segments and some introductions and personal stories segments.

Finally, they cut to the CTICC where Johnny Clegg performed a slightly awkward rendition of Scatterlings of Africa. Maybe it was awkward because Mchunu (you know, the black half of Juluka) wasn't there playing alongside Johnny.

Oh well, I was confident Zuma and the FIFA President could somehow improve the show. They chose the smart move and played a recorded video from Nelson Mandela.
Now you see, Mandela is a pretty big deal. Probably the biggest cheers of that entire evening came during Mandela's speech when everyone, white, colored, and black screamed in excitement. "Madiba madiba madiba!" This was one of those times where I dazedly looked around and the full impact of my situation bludgeoned me in the face. I live in Africa. Holy shit.

I have no clue as to how the rest of the continent feels about this, but South Africa very much wants to show off this world cup as being the whole of Africa's world cup. This is, after all, the first cup to be held on this continent, and in South Africa, football is much more the sport of the blacks than the whites (What is? Rugby.)

Then the message ended, and the orange Dutch upstairs went back to tooting their horns and we all went back to yelling expletives at them.
The show continued, featuring more annoying history features and eventually Charlize Theron. For Arrested Development fans: Rita has a pretty strong accent. I'm betting Theron normally has a pretty noticeable accent. At the draw, she sounded as American as I've ever heard her be. Other guests included Ethiopian marathon pimp Haile Gebrselassie and David "Fauxhawk" Beckham. Finally the draw could begin.

I'm not knowledgeable enough to really gain much from the painfully drawn out process of selecting teams and then selecting slots for the aforementioned team. However, the allegiances in the audience were highly variable, and I'll admit that I care for the success of the US team. It still seemed most fitting to alternate between yelling obscenities at Beckham's ridiculously haired head and at the Dutch punks who seemed to gain no end of pleasure from being as loud as possible.

Finally the torment was ended and everyone cheered some more. Freshlyground would be playing soon, at long last. However, both Rainer and I were very hungry, and decided to seek sustenance before the music began.

Unsurprisingly, all the food places were swamped, even my favorite dingy falafel joint. We agreed that the wait was not worth our time, so we wouldn't stick around too long. Plus, more beer would assuredly ease our hunger pangs. We returned to the stage area, yet something felt amiss. No one had started playing during out brief absence, and no one was coming on stage. Freshlyground appeared to be taking their dear sweet time. In the meantime, we got down with it among the natives.
there was an epic tootfest/war but the action was too... active to be caught on film
Then some crazy old woman singer came on and started belting antiquarian South African pop jingles at us. The natives certainly seemed to know every last lyric, but they were lost on a German and an American. As far as I could gather, Freshlyground just didn't play, and I missed the announcement. The few fireworks were small consolation.
There were two rounds of fireworks. I think. A third might have gone off while I had my eyes closed.
"Yeah, let's just go."

So we did. We obtained delicious food elsewhere, which was a bit of a task in of itself, but turned out alright in the end. It was quite late by the time we departed, which makes me comfortable in saying that we made the most of such a raucous free event.

Friday, December 4

One of the many advantages of globalization

One day I was driving through the southern suburbs on a roundabout route back to my house and I happened to roll past a very salient stimuli situated just outside my passenger side window.
Why the emphasis on BREAD in the right sign? Who the fuck goes to 7-11 to buy bread? Oh right, Africa.
Just to be clear, I haven't seen any legitimate American chains out here... till now. No McDonalds, no Best Western, no Sears, nadda. This is definitely a first.

After parking in the most dysfunctional single level lot in the world, I walked around the corner to behold the wonder I had... well, already beheld.
So... where the hell does a place like 7-11 get all this electricity? And how the bloody do they store it?!?
It makes sense to sell your electricity in advance rather than billing later if you're afraid half of your customers are going to pick up and scatter in order to avoid paying their bills. Apparently very few of them pay rent, too.

After pausing to snap the above photo, I entered. Alack! There were no toquitos or twix bars so I had to make due with buying a fifty cent (R3.50) "fresh" chicken samosa. Much better than a toquito, though somehow lacking in that stale grease flavor they have going on.

Upon leaving the establishment, I saluted in proper fashion.

Of course, what truly makes 7-11's special are their unintuitive trading hours. I don't know what they are for this particular establishment, but the nice thing about Cape Town, unlike Boston, is that restaurants and bars stay open late. So if I'm really desperate for some food at 3AM I have the option of getting an American style diner burger nearby, or a gatsby. Seriously if I can't get a twix at this place then what is the point?

Thursday, December 3

World AIDS Day and South Africa

Since I am the type of person whose scientific interest is piqued by watching baboons copulate, it should not come as much of a surprise that I like to read the blogs over at Kinsey Confidential, which is basically the internet gateway to the (in)famous Kinsey Institute. Recently I was scanning the ol' RSS feeds and my eyes immediately saccaded to the title: "South Africa, World AIDS Day, Music, and More."

Most people are aware of the AIDS problem in Africa. The particularly bad version of the problem seen in South Africa is not as widely known. To put it mildly, its damn bad. But, I won't ruin the post for you; have yourself a read. Even I learned a few things, for instance,

...in South Africa, the question of providing condoms in residence halls isn’t a question at all. In fact, condom dispensers, like the one pictured above, can be found throughout university campuses, in the offices of many faculty and administrators, as well as public restrooms throughout the country.

Have I ever used a public restroom in South Africa? I'm not sure I was even aware that they existed! I hope they're better than in Japan...

Wednesday, December 2

Up the Lion's Head

My apologies for the lack of posts. Blame the massive network of satellites connecting South Africa to the rest of the world because its still can't hold a candle to a massive undersea pipe which will be online anytime now they say. I got all manner of photodumps coming at you though.
TOTALLY SHOPPED STOP READING NOW THIS GUY IS A LIAR no seriously, this is actually just the greatest photo ever produced
For starters, I climbed up Lion's Head Peak with Rainer and some South African chums. Our fearless trail guide told us that this hike has both the best view, and also happens to be one of the easiest.
On the way up, we saw some dung beetles. We didn't see any poop, which was a change from the usual daily routine, but also just a bit confusing. I haven't seen dung beetles anywhere else, so why would they choose to congregate near the top of an uninhabited rock? There's just not a lot of defecating going on around there.
this bastard would never fly low enough for me to take a picture with him as part of the nice scenery. HE WAS ALWAYS TOO HIGH AND MIGHTY
 We also saw many paragliders. Those guys launch themselves from the side of the peak, at a spot along the trail outfitted for this purpose. I may try it out sometime before I leave. You get to soar around the middle of Cape Town with outrageous views for a half hour or more (without any need for piloting skills thanks to having a trained pilot strapped to your back), which sound like a pretty nice deal, especially when you consider how cheap it is compared to some of the other insane stuff you can do down here.

Although, some poor sap was down below the lift off point, pulling a hundred small cords out of a large bush. Somehow he'd botched the takeoff, which struck me as difficult since the takeoff process basically just consists of jumping once into the air. According to the team leader for the day, he shouldn't feel bad since "everyone of us has been down there before, mate!"

Oh, and so as not to deceive anyone, let it be know that it is called a peak for a reason: its less than 2000 feet tall. And there aren't any real cliffs except for the optional part of the trail where you may choose to climb said cliffs by hoisting yourself up a chain. Fun times!

Then we reached the top, and well, our leader was not lying. This was a good view.
 Africa: The Next Day
Africa: When Harry Met Lloyd
 This picture didn't turn out as well as I had hoped - you can't see the brown-purple shadows of the clouds on the ocean
 not pictured: the huge-ass new football stadium for the world cup
 That's signal hill, just below the peak. There are some cannons at its base that fire every day at noon so that Capetonians can set their watches.
 I still can't believe the waterfront is named after Victoria and Alfred. Or that Canada has the Queen on their currency.

On the way up, I also got to hear all about local politics the antics of African National Congress Youth League president Julius Malema. I will give you the same advice they gave me: check out the vast collection of quotation recorded on his wikipedia page.

And that is all. In the next installment... AIDS.

Monday, November 23

Johnny Clegg at Kirstenbosch

Some may remember passing mentions of the individual known as Johnny Clegg. He plays World Music, particularly, a meld of Zulu traditions with European styles (like Celtic). He's a pretty sweet guy, making good music and pissing off the Apartheid regimes of the 80's by playing interracial music with an interracial band featuring lots of protest songs.

Every summer, the National Botanical Gardens at Kirstenbosch holds a series of sunset concerts. Clegg opened for this year's season. Clegg was the first musical act I was introduced to when I arrived, and I have quickly become a fan. I've been to Kirstenbosch before, and it is a picturesque garden to be sure. However, I've never been for a concert, so I wasn't sure what to expect.
fucking ass hell I fucking hate lawn concerts so fucking much
 Shit! I hate sit-down-picnic-lawn concerts. I despise them more than life itself.

Please allow me to have a brief bit of your time to expand this hatred into one of my traditional rants. Premise: lawn concerts suck. Why do I think lawn concerts suck? Oh, let me tell you.

Firstly, if you don't realize it is a lawn concert, you also do not realize that everyone gets there early and sets up their huge blankets, propped chairs, and braai, because that's the only way to maximize your ability to be a huge asshole and take up as much prime space as possible. By the time I arrived (an hour before the start) there was not a speck of green grass showing under the blankets.

Secondly, because they've gone to all the trouble noted above, everyone just sits there the whole concert. By the end, people finally got into things and stood up. I think that most of them would have rather been sitting, but enough people were standing and blocking the view that critical mass was achieved and the chain reaction carried them all from there. However, once they began to stand, there was nothing to do but dance awkwardly in place. No pit, no mingling, no sense of... togetherness. This seems sort of important for the style and meaning of Johnny Clegg's music. And sure, I'm a little spoiled from being raised on Flogging Molly concerts.

Thirdly, everyone is a cut-throat about their space. In a pit, people are cut-throat as well, but there is no personal space and everyone knows that. In a pit, its an aggressive type of cut-throat; on the lawn, it is passive-aggressive. Everyone has some agenda or explanation to act unfriendly, whether it be kids or age or just longtime fandom and devotion. They will excuse away everything in the most lighthearted fashions, whereas in a pit, the word choice sounds more like "No, now stop pushing us, asshole."

Luckily for me I have been to enough concerts and understand how to best channel my own rage, so I did fine for myself. I sat myself down by the sidewalk and leaned up against a comfortable post. In exchange for finding a little extra room next to me to fit a kind Italian couple, I was offered a pad to sit on, and a glass of wine. This was my view of the stage:
this was a damn good view (below 85% of the audience) when some jackass wasn't choosing directly in front of me to dance with his fucking kids
..and that's all the pictures you get to see because someone involved with this concert forbid us to take pictures of the stage while the band was playing.

Thus far into the post, the setting has unfortunately overshadowed the music. This is because wild condemnation is much more interesting than thoughtful praise. And, that is all I've got for Mr. Clegg, I'm afraid. The music was great. Clegg had a great stage presence during and between songs - maybe all the South Africans knew the gist of his stories, but to an outsider they were quite thrilling and enlightening. I especially liked the strong saxophone element. I don't care what those darn critics say - the 80's got that right.

Anyway, here are some sample videos of the band:

This last clip is from a special concert in rememberance Nelson Mandela's decades long imprisonment on Robben's Island. My own story of the Robben's Island prison is interesting... and I haven't even been there yet! The tale itself ought to wait for that...

So the music was great, and despite being a lawn concert, I think I made the most of it.

Finally, I'd like to note my... numb surprise at the composition of the audience. It was about the same as the Daisies festival. This was interracial fusion music, but it was a bit depressingly white. For me, the most interesting guy in the audience was one of the ushers, a diminutive black fellow, who I could see soundlessly singing along with the lyrics while moving back and forth, directing people and keeping a an eye out.


Monday, November 16

The Discovery of a Lifetime

Some time ago, my South African friend, Billie, told me about this sandwich concept called a "Gatsby," which is popular in the Cape Town region and not really anywhere else in the world. The idea is that its a big old sub type sandwich except the bread is wider and its loaded down with french fries on the actual sandwich. First the layer of fries then the meaty substance of choice, cover it with some sauce, and throw some vegetables over all of it. Close the bread over it all and you've got a Gatsby.

I was very excited by the prospect of slobbering over a decadent mass of bread and meat, so Billie and I went off to find a gatsby place on Friday. They aren't so easy to locate, since the sandwich is more the product of the colored and black populations than the whites. Most white South Africans couldn't tell us anything about where to find a place, if they even knew what the sandwich was. "You'd probably have to go to the townships," one girl told us. Uh huh.

However, once we realized we were barking up the wrong tree, it wasn't too hard to find a vendor. I ordered myself a steak gatsby, which apparently means delicious Indian beef curry. It looked like this:
its like a fucking foot and a half long and about half as wide and holy shit oh shit shit
The photo, of course, does not do justice. A smell is worth a thousand pictures.

Then Billie offered to take pictures of me stuffing the monster into my face.

It was really tasty. Though I predictably felt a bit sick afterwards. I've since decided that I am allowed one gatsby per month, tops.

By the way, I am going to find a way to bring this delicacy to the States and start a restaurant chain which will be awesome, of course.

Wednesday, November 11

The True Meaning of Multi-Ethnic

When the results of a collaborative project between MIT and Stellenbosch studying the population genetics of a unique South African racial group shows up on PubMed, I really have no choice but to give it some attention.

First set of background info: in South Africa, there is a group of people known as "Coloreds" who make up about 9% of the total population, but in Cape Town, Coloreds make up a whopping 48% of the population. They are by far the largest demographic group here - second place goes to Blacks with 31%, and third is won by Whites, with 19%. The Coloreds are the result of hundreds of years of interbreeding between the whites who lived here (mostly Afrikaners), their slaves, and other random Africans who just happened to be hanging around. During Apartheid, the Coloreds were given more rights than the Blacks, but their lives were still made to suck.

So you've got this odd ethnic group which has developed over the past half millennium. I already described which groups historians think contributed to the Colored ethnicity, but it isn't a very satisfactory explanation when one wishes to ask such question as to just how much each progenitor race contributed to the formation of the Colored ethnicity.

Since creating a new race is not a particularly common phenomenon, it is an interesting thing to study. Understanding the genetic breakdown of colored South African DNA would arguably be helpful for understanding their medical conditions. Also, I think its a great case study which will become more and more relevant as mixed race breeding grows.

This was a descriptive study, and I like those because unless they're just flat out wrong (unlikely) they're just observations about how things are that we didn't know yet. All around useful stuff. Now that we know that the main contributors to the Colored race are (very very likely) Europeans, South Asians, Indonesians, and IsiXhosa relatives, one can make use of this information for medical purposes, cultural investigations, further racial foundation analyzes; all kinds of stuff.

Unless the methodology is severely flawed, and I haven't taken the time or obtained the expertise to check, then this is a solid paper.

Thanks to Dienekes over at his own genetics and anthropology blog for the link on this one.

Sunday, November 8

Elephant Stone

I went up to Silvermine National Park so I could hike to the Elephant Eye on Constantiaberg. I took many pictures.
Africa: The Mighty Ducks
Silvermine is located "way up" in the mountains on the cape where the European plantations never reached, so the native fynbos has survived there. Fynbos is apparently a biome unique to this small region of the world - found nowhere but along the cape.
Africa: Revenge of the Fallen Africa: The Clone Wars
It isn't too far of a hike (but I don't remember the actual distance since it was in kilometers...) from parking lot across the rocks and slopes of the Silvermine ridge to reach the Elephant's Eye. One has to cross the top of the valley (seen below) just above the tree line. Then, one will reach the lookout.
Africa: The Legendary Journeys
In my travels thus far, the lookout provided the perfect panoramic view of the Southern Suburbs, winged by the Cape Flats and False Bay.
Africa: Warrior Princess?
 Africa: Indahouse
 Africa: A Space Odyssey
 Africa: Diaboromon Strikes Back
From the lookout, the Elephant Eye cave is a relatively short walk, though the slopes are sheer and the path is not so wide. Fortunately, one is protected from falling by barbed wire fences. It is as if everyone in South Africa wants to have normal fences but the fence-makers only know how to make barbed wire.
Africa: The X-Men United
 There's nothing particular special about the above picture, but for some reason the perspective looks unnaturally warped to me.
Anyway, that's the eye. Why an elephant you may ask? Well, if you squint and turn your head a bit, it looks more like an elephant. This angle is key, though. It can be seen from several miles around if you know what to look for, but then it just looks like cliff side hole. Here, you can see the dome of the big head and the center rib of rock running past the right edge of the socket, which strongly resembles the start of a trunk.
Africa: Taking it to the Streets
The inside is really more interesting. Plants surround and fill the small cavern. It doesn't go very far back, unfortunately. Its been a long time since I've gone spelunking in some quality American caverns. I rather miss it.
I'm rather proud of this one, since it manages to feature the fynbos shrub on the side of the cave outline, as well as a slanting transition from sea to beach to town to forest
... and that was the key photo of the trip. Within the cave is a great spot to relax in the comfort of shade and listen to the climax of Fire Upon the Deep.
 Africa: Red, White, and Blonde
 On the way back, I got a glimpse at the mini-highlands of Silvermine, featuring the reservoir, a popular local Braai site.
 Africa:The Undiscovered Country
It looks like I'll be afforded many opportunities to go hiking in this region in the near future. I've unfortunately forgotten my camera when I've gone to Kirstenbosch and Camps Bay, but I know I'll be returning to these spots, so I'll be sure to properly photograph them then.

Friday, November 6

Extra notice

I recently was checking my statistics and found that my writings has been noticed by a South African bloke who I had the pleasure of seeing perform recently. His name is Warren Robertson, and he is was one of the guys doing stand-up at the Daisies festival. He noticed what I wrote about the comedy parts of the festival, and since I didn't have the presence of mind to mention it in the original post, I'll do it here.

I stopped by to see most of the improv portion which Warren talks about in his own Daisies Festival summary. It was a real pleasure to watch. Now being able to put the name to the face, I can verify that he (and all of them, honestly) was on fire. During the "Famous Last Words" segment I almost felt bad for the other comics since Warren was nailing the lines one after another. Great stuff.

I think I'll diverge onto a tangent, briefly. To me, improv (if it really isn't planned like they say...) seems to be one of the most impressive forms of comedy. I have seen some amazing improv shows and when they go well, I can't help but be amazed. This is a big reason why I kept coming back for more of Roadkill Buffet but not so much Plush Daddy Fly.

Anyway, Comedia put on just such a stellar improv show at Daisies. Kudos to Warren and the rest. I hope I'll get a chance to catch one of his shows the next time he comes down to the Cape. But enough gushing.

Related links:

Thursday, November 5

Field Report

if I had a million dollars \ I would buy you a monkey \ ... haven't you always wanted a monKEY?

I found this at the local market the other day. No way I could not buy it. The question is if I can ever bring myself so eat it. The package at least is must-save material. I spoke to one South African acquaintance about it, but I was left with a particular nagging question.

Is the sauce made from monkey or is it made to be used on monkey?

Sorry about the continued lack of updates and fixes - life is keeping things very busy. That just means there will be more and better material when I am afforded the opportunity to write it.

Monday, November 2


Firstly, I've added a disclaimer to the top of the sidebar. Please read it.

Secondly, I've been somewhat unsatisfied with structure and photos in many of the posts, so I'm looking at better ways to do my thing. In the meantime, I've removed some stuff for revamping so you guys don't have to see me mucking about trying out new things. Rest assured, the content will return, and continue.

And welcome to any new visitors! I hope you enjoy my writings.

Friday, October 30

Walk on the Wild Side

Perhaps you readers remember that thing I said about it being very rare for one to ever see two baboon troops come into direct contact because of how good they are at avoiding each other.

Turns out I was dead wrong about part of that statement.

Having not accomplished jack this week thanks to the baboons being all out of place, I wanted to go out and do something. Just finding one of our missing troops would be satisfying enough. Tina and I thus decided to go look for them off in the boondocks of the left side (don't tell me it doesn't make sense - that's just what we call it) of the mountain. We had no GPS readings or anything else to go by except our ears and knowledge of where the had been the previous few days.

Our main troop was up the mountain yesterday, but not today. We drove back out and headed up to the second troop's usual spot. We asked mountain bikers for any tips as we usually do, though no one came through today. None were seen on this road. Our last ditch effort was to go up to the high road and see what we could find.

"Look! Baboons!" Tina shouted and pointed directly ahead. I hit the brake and the car ground to an abrupt halt on the dirt road, narrowly avoiding the murder of three juveniles. We hopped out for a quick inspection. After spotting a few key characters like Mortimer, Bruno, and Eva, we identified them as troop-number-two. At last!

We unpacked our stuff so we could follow them. This plan did not last long. A wahoo echoed into the forest, originating nearby. And I heard a reply from further down the mountain. Tina and I looked at each other. Neither of us was going to get real data out of this day. We both knew the other wanted to find out what was happening down there.

We followed some of the young adult males down the hill, eventually passing them when they halted. They were a bit agitated - actually the whole troop seemed more vocal and excited than usual. We crossed the lower road we had already gone through, and kept moving into the bushes.

We found our main troop. Well, we found half of them. The juveniles and sub-adults were all there, mucking about, grunting, and acting just as agitated. Bertrand, Chester, and Damian, the other three adult males, were all there, too. Only two or three adult females could be seen.

We were both quite happy to have found these guys. They were still way too high up on the mountain, and far out of their home range, but it was closer to their usual territory than in the previous few days. I felt somewhat relaxed, so I went across the road into the bushes have a celebratory pee.

As I am doing this, a wild cacophony erupts behind me. I turn around mid-stream and see a pack of  sub-adult males from troop 2 charging down the hill towards the road where all the troop 1 juveniles and sub-adults are sitting. Shit was starting real fast. As soon as I finish my piss, I turn around and dash after them, fumbling with my pants and zipper, which I manage to get closed just before I jump into the thicket of dead branches and needles after the males.

Screams and wahoos are everywhere in there, males are chasing each other up and down trees, and around frightened children. The whole place is a huge mess and I can't begin to follow everything that's happening. But I know I am witnessing a rare event. The larger defensive force of Tr.1 eventually pushes back Tr.2, out of the thicket. They take up spots in the trees nearby, and the wahooing continues. I didn't think sub-adults could wahoo. Boy was I wrong.

Tr.1 eventually pushed Tr.2 back further, a ways up the mountain. The two sub-adult forces sat there for quite some time, me sitting in the neutral zone between them, watching. The wahooing had ended, and the groups had settled down to just staring daggers at each other, a mere 20 meters between them.

This seemed to be going on forever, so I went to find Tina to see what she'd learned. She pointed out that the females were nowhere to be found, but there were still fainter wahoos coming from down the hill. We both wanted to know more.

Down through the forest, we saw a large male running around, chasing some other baboons occasionally, and even more occasionally giving a wahoo. When we reached the next road down, we saw it was Aaron, alpha king of the troop. And he had herded all the females this way, far from the site of battle. We found almost all of our missing females down there, and Aaron was being more forceful in pushing them around than we'd ever seen. He had a reputation as being a calm and "sweet" baboon, in spite of being the alpha.

It was tense down there, as one would expect from a dozen females who were being pushed away from everyone else in the troop by a single massive male. It was simmering down, though. I had seen the end of the conflict, now it was just a matter of tensions subsiding. We weren't going to wait, though. It was rather late by this point, and we'd found three of four troops in a single day with minimal advanced info.

Right now I'd like to bow to science, and give a brief description of the model which is usually (and was) obeyed during these troop-to-troop engagements. The groups get divided into two factions during these encounters: the leader males with the females, and the sub-adults and juveniles.

The sub-adults and juveniles are an excitable bunch as always, and they tend to itch for fights and new things. The cape baboons are definitely what we call neophilic. Also, the young males (of which there are many), will eventually need to emigrate from their troops, and they don't have a lot of choice. They frequently use these instances to get information about opposing females, if possible. Plus, if they're really lucky, during one of their incursions they'll be able to copulate with a female.

Which is why the alpha and most females stay very far away. The females don't care much, but the alpha doesn't want anyone getting near his females. Just as Aaron did, the alpha will herd the females away from the opposing troop, quite a distance sometimes, in order to protect them for his own good.

In the end, the troops go their own ways and it doesn't happen again for a very long time. (Un)fortunately, we're not dealing with chimpanzee warfare here in Cape Town.

Wednesday, October 28

Don't Let This Happen To You

A few days ago, we were up on the mountain with the troop, and followed them into the upper vineyards. This is a common place for them to forage. They don't care for the vines much, but the fallow fields nearby are perfect for them since they are filled with a wild, barley-esque grain.

The group was on edge this day, since the second troop had been spotted a few hills away. There was nothing for our troop to do but avoid them, but certain thresholds had been lowered...

Alia has been acting a bit off-color lately, probably because she is pissed that her baby died. Today, she decided to blow off some steam in the vineyards.

Alia lashed out at one of the juvenile females. We don't know why. Maybe it was a fluke, maybe she had a smaller altercation with the juvenile's mother earlier in the day and decided to take it out on the child. However, Alia is not a high ranking female, so her chasing and swatting at a higher ranked juvenile made a lot of the females unhappy.

The chase quickly changed shape, and Alia became the target of the rage of almost a dozen baboons. She screamed and ran, while the others screamed and followed. All the while, I stood in one of the vine rows with my supervisor, quietly observing and recording. Then, the chase halted, and Alia was left surrounded by the opposing force of baboons. She grunted threateningly at them, and they responded in kind.

Then, Alia turned her gaze up, towards me. I was standing a dozen meters behind the arc of baboons threatening Alia. She threat-grunted in my direction, and raised her eyebrows repeatedly, a clear aggressive gesture.

Instantaneously, the other baboons wheeled about, threat-grunted, and raised their eyebrows in my direction.I froze. I had no idea what happened; if I was their target. Bottom line was that a dozen angry baboons staring at me with murderous intent.

This is a classic Oh Shit moment in zoology. Pissing off a male is easy to fix. You back down immediately and show you are submissive. Male fights are dangerous and costly - they won't fight you if you show them they've already won. Mothers are a different story. When you're surrounded by a horde of them, it is usually very unclear why they feel threatened by you. One cannot say what the smart move is. A dozen angry baboon females can bring on far more hurt than a lone, lumbering male.

So I froze in fear.  The seconds crawled by, and after... (probably) 3 seconds, the females returned to screaming and barking and all dispersed throughout the field.

Maybe they were threatening me, maybe they were not, maybe I did something to scare them off or maybe they realized their mistake and the silliness of their actions. No one can know the mind of an angry mob, whether it be human or baboon. I prefer to just be thankful.

Friday, October 23


We had a pleasant surprise waiting for us in the field on Monday. Well, several, actually. Firstly, despite finding "our troop" during the search the previous night, it turned out that it was an entirely different troop. We know little about them except they're small, quiet, and show up out of thin air to get in the way when you want to collect data. Their big old male was throwing a huge male fit where the adults all chased each other around while shouting and jumping.

I was following around a female I thought to be Punzle since she had a young baby who would be the target of many grunts. However, the child looked different to me. Was it just the natural process of getting older and the fur changing colors?
you can't tell unless you've seen them with this expression hundreds of times, but the older sibling on the right is SO PISSED that those boobies are now off limits for him
Quite the opposite actually. The child had become younger.

This was a true newborn baboon, a "blackie" as we call them. As one would expect, the name derives from the extreme darkness of their hair, which fades with age. Wendy had given birth sometime over the weekend and we were the first humans to see her new child. There will be a great amount of grunting in the troop with the newborn around.
you have no fucking idea how hard it was to get a decent version of this picture. The mothers won't let us anywhere near their newborns, so I had to zoom in to the most retardedly high magnification and take like 70 shots
The rest of the day passed as usual, and it was only when we wished to leave that an obstacle threw itself in our path.

I've mentioned Rickey before. He's a sub-adult male, probably between 6 and 7 years old. Every troop has one like him: a sub-adult who invariably has an attitude problem.

We're headed back to the car so we can go home, and there are a few juvenile males sitting on the roof. They dash away as we open the doors and start doing our thing. This is normal behavior.
aw dude you know I'd totally get off your car if I could but I suddenly became so fucking fat as soon as I lay down here
However, Rickey has to one-up his little cousins, so he prances over to the car and climbs on top, refusing to move. We quickly shut the doors and step back, not sure what to do. Somehow we have to get rid of him, but will he get physically aggressive? Its unlikely, but still a considerable risk if he does get angry. Rickey uses our moments of hesitation to let loose hot piss all over the roof of the car. Truly, this is our glory.

Tina mentions some things about "testosterone" at which point, tired of waiting and sick of Freddie's antics, I say "I'll take care of it," and approach the car, key in hand. I carefully unlock the automobile, occasionally glancing at Rickey, who's head is drooped over the roof a few feet from me. No aggressive expressions from either of us. I open the door, climb in, and shut it with more than the usual force.

Rickey remains immobile. He'll never know what hit him. There are several ways to do this, and at this point, I am safe and it all just becomes enjoyable from my end. I shift into reverse before starting the car, then quickly turn the key in the ignition and pull out of the parking slot.

The combination of engine noise and sudden backwards motion sends Freddie scrambling for stable earth. We all have a good laugh, though are sobered somewhat when we remember that the back left portion of the car is covered in baboon urine. Poop and pee makes our work feel more legitimate sometimes, and it certainly gives one's car the real African feel. Real African smell, too.

Tuesday, October 20


What a day. It wasn't looking hot to begin with, though the heat of the sun built up substantially, and we had to get up extra early to seek out the troop, which had "wandered" up the side of the mountain. We succeeded in finding them, and as we followed, the events of the day made this day perhaps the most exciting I've seen so far.

First, an update on the dead baby situation. Alia seemed to have returned to normal, no false-wahoo'ing, less  overt breast swelling. She might not be on good terms with some folks though, but more on that later. Unfortunately, Matilda (one of the pregnant females) gave birth over the weekend, but her baby also died. She was carrying the decaying corpse around today, though she did not appear to be as stricken as Alia had been. We believe the cause of death was probably something related to the birth, as we saw no signs of violence on the corpse.

Early in the day, tensions were high among the troop. The team has consistently remarked that the troop is a more aggressive troop than others we've seen around in various parts of the world, including right here, and the death of two infants wasn't lessening any of the strain. The big impact today was the presence of the second troop, who we could not see at first, but could definitely hear. Many wahoo's carried over the woods to our location. Aaron (alpha) and Bertrand (older adult male) responded with their own wahoo's on occasion.

Once the troop was finished with its extended sunbathing session, they walked into the woods, doubtlessly headed toward the vineyards. In the woods, the air became literally hazy with all the pine pollen being released. Hopefully this means my allergic reactions will diminish soon, as the pollen is expended. The other troop's wahoo's were heard by our troop from the edge of the woods, and from this point forward, events became a bit unclear.

Aaron became quite incensed, and began aggressively chasing one of the females. This might have been displacement aggression brought on by the other troop. Adult baboons moving at full speed are very difficult to follow, much less meticulously observe, but from what I saw, the whole troop went into a bit of a frenzy at the sight of this seemingly unprovoked aggression. When I saw Aaron a few seconds later, two females were chasing him. I followed them deeper into the forest, where Aaron was wahoo'ing at a female (I'm guessing the same one), both of them slowly climbing up the same tree.

At this point, Bertrand steps into the picture. Aaron is wahoo'ing his head off, and Bertrand is just slowly approaching, from behind me. He grunted like he would to an infant as a sign of affection. I stepped out of his way and he stopped at the foot of the tree and continued his grunting. Aaron advanced on the female through the branches. I noticed she was caring an infant, probably about a year old, and both were screaming at high pitches at Aaron.

Aaron closed within striking distance, and took a swipe at the female. Bertrand exploded. His eyes lit up and his massive old frame rocketed up the tree at Aaron. The two wahoo'd and roared at each other as they exchanged swipes. Bertrand drove Aaron up the tree until he had nowhere to go, at which point the younger adult leapt to the next tree over. Bertrand continued to threaten him, but gradually worked his way down the tree with the female and child, and went away with them into the forest undergrowth. Aaron remained in his tree for some time.

All the while, I stood there and watched the entire scene unfold. It was pretty sweet. My supervisor couldn't help but remark on the massive grin drawn across my face when I returned to report on my findings.

We talked about the event for a while. None of us could explain why exactly Aaron went apeshit. Maybe it was displacement aggression since Aaron was too far from the other troop to battle with their males, but was put on edge by the constant wahoo'ing. However, the female's child was almost certainly one of Bertrand's little entourage. There would be no reason for him to go to such lengths to defend the female and child from the alpha male unless he believed the child to be of his blood. I asked about Bertrand's grunting, which might have seemed out of place. It is most likely that Bertrand wanted to calm the situation, make everyone, Aaron and spectators alike, cool down. This is one of the major documented uses of grunts among baboons. Usually it is quite effective...

So, I had finally seen some real male aggression, up close and personal. And I saw my preferred male come out ahead. Not bad at all.

The troop continued through the woods to the vineyard, where they foraged for some time. We actually saw troop 2 several vinefields away, but a full on altercation between the groups didn't occur. Such encounters are very very rare, and I'll probably not see one before my time here is up. Today's antics were more than satisfactory to sate my desire to witness action.

What a weird day.

I keep having to push back all these entries I've been brainstorming (some since before I arrived) but when things like this happen, a lot of events get superseded. It also explains a lot of why my estimated ideal posting rate of "twice a week" has jumped to "about every other day." And even now I'm still accruing more content that I've got time to distill. I hope you like text? (I've got a lot more pictures too...)

Monday, October 19


Friday's in the field always suck. Lately they've been these epically long days. I could endure such an inconvenience on virtually any other day - I would just go back to HQ and do some fun and maybe even productive stuff. On Fridays its the end of the week and its all been building upon you, and the weekend is so close.

Friday turned out to be a long and somber day. We found the baboons in a usual sleeping spot. As soon as we arrived we became confused, since we kept hearing the "wahoo" call... from a female. A wahoo call is a very specialized male call that only the mature male contenders are known to use. Why was this female seeming to wahoo? She was Alia, mother of the youngest baby baboon in the troop. Or, at least she had been. The baby was nowhere to be seen.
cue powerpoint photo montage, backed by Green Day - Good Riddance
The infant was dead. We knew this because Alia's breasts were full, real full of milk which wasn't getting consumed and didn't have anywhere to go.

The whole tribe seemed to be awkwardly avoiding the subject. After about half an hour with them, I could no longer shake the feeling that this was going to be a very quiet day. Here was this female in mental and physical anguish, screaming out at her fellows. Everyone just kept silent and didn't do anything about it. But what could they do?

... and I just called the troop a tribe. One of those little things that transcends the editing process.

Baboon grieving can be a disturbing reflection of human behavior. Some of the animals appeared to offer comfort by grooming Alia and letting her groom them. Alia was definitely not a high ranking female, but it appeared the rest of the troop was being lenient with her at this time.

Alia spent the whole day barking randomly. This behavior seemed like it a was a nervous tick, not a choice. She would be grooming a juvenile and out of nowhere she'd let loose that bark, often right in the face of the juvenile. She didn't interrupt her grooming for it. Was it a high level decision based behavior? Was it some built in fixed action pattern elicited by this event? Was it a scream of pain just because her chest hurt from being bloated with milk? (Me: I've heard that hurts when they're overly full; Karen: Oh you better believe it.)

Infanticide is never a surprise among baboons. Infant baboons are extremely vulnerable to disease, predators, and their own kind. This case was even less of a shock to us. The previous Friday, when last we saw the troop, Alia and her child had been on the receiving end of a lot of abuse from females and sub-adults. Alia sought protection from an adult male, a common practice among mothers. Aaron is the alpha, but she did not seek him out, so the child was probably not his. No one in the troop would mess with one of his offspring. Alia went to Bertrand,  another adult male, an older gentleman, huge, but missing his canines and past his prime. He would accept her offers of grooming, but did not seem especially interested in her child. Despite still peckering an isolated female every now and then, Bertrand mostly sticks to the grandfathering role. He is often accompanied by a gaggle of small baboon children who are probably his progeny. Alia wanted her child to be one of them. If Bertrand did offer some protection, it clearly was not enough to make the difference.

Aaron is young, and likely only recently took up the mantle of alpha male. The troop used to have many more males in the troops other than Aaron, Bertrand, and Chester. We do not know where the other males went, but their departure was very recent. I have been considering the possibility that Alia's child was the progeny of none of these males, but belonged to one of those absent, perhaps the previous alpha. With the ascendancy of Aaron and the disappearance of the other males, it is in the best interest of the remaining males to kill her child so that she will begin cycling as soon as possible so that she can produce a new offspring who will carry their genetic material.

The male behavior was clear. But why did Alia seem so distraught? Its very far from obvious. All of the complex cognitive states I "witnessed" in the baboons could have been artifacts of my human perception. To say that the experts disagree on the extent of baboon cognition is an understatement. Some behaviors are clearer than others - the baboons certainly did not feel remorse for killing an infant. The mother's own troubles may not have only been the result of swollen breasts and lingering hormonal desires to suckle and hold an infant.

Alone, the feeling of grief or remorse is not an advantageous behavior. Remorse ought only to exist so as to make sure an animal learns from its mistakes and does not repeat them. Grief might come about as a result of slowly changing hormonal levels which cannot adapt so quickly as the brain can. Grief could also serve a  purpose similar to remorse, to make sure the female does not make the same mistake as she did with the child which died. She won't want to go though these pains again, so she'll change and adapt her behavior to avoid these situations. Next time, she'll know what not to do, and it could save her next child's life. She lost fitness by losing her child, but her ability to care for a child is strengthened, thus increasing the survivability of future offspring and hence, her fitness.

Thus it all works out in the end and every one is... happy?

Monday, October 12

Live from a field in South Africa, Part I

When I started this blog, I wanted to talk about primates and animal behavior a lot, but I also wished to chronicle my adventures through the culture and life of South Africa. This will be the first such dedicated post, and I hope my description lives up to experiences at Rocking the Daises 2009.

All of last week, I kept hearing tidbits from a few people here and there, in the real world and the online one, about some music festival in the Cape Town area. And aKING was playing. That was all I knew. Come Friday, I finally make some effort to see what the logistics and lineup is. In the process I found a sweet site that covers most of the goings ons in Cape Town, which ought to keep me busy and not bored for a while to come. It also told me that the festival started Friday, ran all Saturday and Sunday, was at some wine estate north of the city, and required I buy a ticket at the local coffee shop if they still had any left.

Day 1

I woke up early, and I jetted to the coffee shop (none other than Seattle's Best Coffee - haven't seen any Starbucks yet) and got my ticket... card. One of the main South African ticketing services came up with this idea of giving you a card with a bar code on it, and then when you buy a ticket, it goes on the card in their database, and they scan the card at entry.

Before you can use said card, you need to activate it. So I had to go back to the house and do that before getting out of the house with all my necessities. It was already past 10 and I was missing hard earned music. I hit the road.

The highways and roads in South Africa are a bit on the... slim side. Also the signs suck. This road kept switching between telling me I was on the M7 and the N7. Of course by then they were the same thing, but I kept thinking I had missed by turn. Getting out of Cape Town lead me by this fatty nuclear plant.
those visible supports at the bottom make this look like someone's rush project
The highway is literally right next to the cooling towers, so that you can see the huge steel beams supporting the structures. About a kilometer beyond that, I found myself passing legitimate African shanty towns.
20% less corrugated steel than an average Namibian shantytown
How... convenient. I bet their energy rates are superb!

Well, this was more like the Africa I had been lead to expect. So were the dudes by the side of the road trying to sell everyone giant batches of trash bags, 50 for 3 bucks. Once I got outside of the township areas and into the country, the trip became much less exciting. It generally just looks like a hilly landscape in the midwest when you're in the Western Cape region. There is still bush in South Africa, but you have to go a way.

Oh, right, how far do I have to go? I glanced at a sign: 40 miles?! What the fu-oh its in kilometers, damnit. Thus, I really didn't know how far I had to go or how long it would take since I really didn't have a good idea of how far a kilometer is in terms of a mile. Or how fast kilometers per hour is in terms of mph. But in theory I could reason this out and it would make sense. My mind didn't like this. It felt like it took way too long.

Finally, I pulled into the dirt road which signaled the final stretch. I was waiting in the... "queue" to pull into the lot, and glanced around at the ordinary but nonetheless scenic landscapes.
so uh when I was driving back I ran over the dead animal which was already roadkill (I SWEAR I DIDN'T KILL IT), but I'll be damned if it wasn't a baby ostrich
Hoooooly shit its an ostrich
Africa: Nuthin' but a G Thang
I pulled into the dirty field and grabbed everything. Except my damn water bottle. Well, they must have some sort of solution to this, we're in the middle of nowhere, they can't just be selling people beer. Onwards!

My ticket/card worked like charm, and I got a pack of info with some warpaint, a condom, and a neat booklet inside. The booklet's map became useful in time, but at first was just confusing. Nonetheless, the really big stage and general source of noise made it pretty easy to figure out where I wanted to go.
what no one told me there was a swimming hole. why didn't anyone fucking tell me about the swimming hole?
Provided I knew where I was going at all. Which I didn't. All I knew was that this was some big music festival  with lots of rock and ethnic music, but the rock part meant there would likely be more white people which made it safer. And I paid 350 rand for two days, so it better be good.
In the words of the comedy tent MC: FUCKING HIPPIES
Well, it appears that I had stumbled upon the Bonnaroo of South Africa. A dirty field in a relatively middle of nowhere location, filled with hippies camped out for three days, and lots of rock bands - some big mainstream headliners and a lot of indie and reggaeish stuff. Not as many jam bands, actually, I don't think there were any. More diverse in general from my glances at the Bonnaroo lineups of late. But, because there are only 10 million people in South Africa, it was definitely smaller.

I approached the main stage in time to catch the latter part of the Jack Mantis Band's performance. It was a standard band setup, except Jack sang and played acoustic rhythm, so they had no real lead guitarist. Instead, they had a saxophonist, which I might prefer in general, but was certainly glad to see since I had this strange feeling that I was going to be hearing plenty of electric guitar over the next two days. However, at the end they played this sweet rendition of All Along the Watchtower with the next act, a guitarist named Dan Patlansky.
featuring Moses on the bass!
Then Dan Patlansky played. He's in his late 20's, but he's the most prominent blues-rock guitar virtuoso in South Africa. And, he's really good. There's not a lot more I can say. The guy has incredible talent. But, watching a three piece band where the guitarist is the only one doing anything can get sort of old for an hour. I always did say I liked bands as full as possible.

One other little irksome thing (to me at least) about electric blues is that the vocalists have to have this raspy baritone thing going on. Patlansky definitely did, Mayer's got it, Vaughan did too, certainly Hendrix as well, plus all the black bluesmen. I've heard people say that it something about having soul. Well, what if Marvin Gaye sang electric blues? How would that sound?

Around this time my thirst levels crossed a threshold and initiated an irresistible appetitive behavior which cause me to seek potable water immediately. I had seen some ordinary looking boxes referred to as "Hydration Stations" all around, but no explanation or water source to accompany them. A quick look at the map told me there was one right between the beer huts near the stage. Upon closer inspection (read: talked to the dude giving out water bottles), I learned that the bottles they were giving out would allow me infinite refills. Unfortunately, the bottles cost 5 bucks (40 rand blah blah). I didn't bother asking if I could use their water with a different bottle (since I had left my behind) or if I could fill an empty beer can with water since that just didn't seem like a good plan to last me ten hours. Fine, give me your 40 rand bottle that says "Rocking the Daisies" on it. Now I won't buy a T-shirt unless I really like it.

I stayed by the stage for the "Red Bull Radar" which is this competition to see which up-and-coming band is gonna get this sweet record deal. The three that made it to the finals this year were a Passion Pit type dealie, a solo sensitive folk Jack Johnson type dude, and evil clown violin rodeo music. The last guys were really weird looking and sounding. I though they were going to win. But the unanimous decision came down in favor of the indie electronica dudes.

I'd had about enough by this point, and despite the allure of the saxophonist in the next group, I decided to head to the comedy tent. Yes, there was an exclusive comedy tent! Well, almost exclusive - they had these native drummers dudes playing in there for an hour, which I also listened to. The comedians then came on and joked about them for a while.

But comedy! And I was about to see the Best of the Fest lineup. Well, the tent was certainly packed. A good first sign. I managed to squeeze into the back. Behold my terrifically awful photography! You can't tell the comedian is Xhosa which made for great jokes!
Mahn, you so white its IRRITATIN. Its like a COCAINE party in mah nose except there's no coke, just your WHITENESS.
As I watched these comedians, I began to realize a few things. 1, Afrikaners are weird. 2, Being South African is pretty much like being British, and if I recall, the British know their comedy. 3, imagine the civil war ended 20 years ago. Now imagine the racial comedy in that kind of atmosphere. Oh yeah.

They were all damn funny. However, the closer for that section, Rob van Vuuren, was absolutely amazing. He's definitely got a lot of physical and silly comedy, but the guy was absolutely hilarious. Midway through his extended routine, my face muscles hurt from laughing so much, and that hasn't happened in quite a while. He's pretty respected around here, and he does plenty of shows in Cape Town, so hopefully I'll have more to hear from him.

I've realized of late that I really like comedy. Throughout the summer, I went to a lot of musical gigs for local artists, somewhat for the radio show, but mostly just for fun since I like music and all that. However, a few happenstantial comedy outings set me seeking out more of that just before I left, which why I went to the boston comedy marathon and visited the alternative comedy sleepover to name a few. One might say the culmination was our hour long live radio chats with Dick Doherty. Anyhow, this all reminded me of just how much I like comedy. And I think I had started to forget it since coming here! Thankfully, the comedy tent was there to remind me how great it is and the interesting take on it South Africa can provide.

I also learned something interesting about South African colloquialism. I was very confused when many of the comedians kept using saying the word "cock," but they were using it as an adjective. I eventually reasoned (correctly) at that, that its an Afrikaans way of saying shitty or shit. I didn't realize till later the word is spelled "kak." In a similar vein, getting the local humor of South African people and places is rather interesting, but not too hard to pick up, thankfully. For example, it took me very little time to acquire the knowledge that Port Elizabeth is the New Jersey of South Africa.

So the comedy was great. But when that portion was done, I really did want to get back to the stage for some more music. Thieve was coming up, afterall. After listening to a song or two by them , I decided I was hungry, and needed to replenish my reserves. Fortunately the food hut was located just to the north, where I could still hear the music. I decided to buy food from the braai stand because isn't that what South Africa's all about? I'm quite hungry here; what's the most expensive item on the menu? The Braai Bag? Sure, gimme. The guy said some stuff in a think Afrikaans accent and I paid him... wait, did he say something about grilling this myself? I think I heard a laugh so he must have been joking. A minute later he handed me a bag.

Noooooope, he wasn't joking. Shit, now I have a bag full of raw but delicious looking meat through which the juices are rapidly seeping. Uhh shit shit, I could give it back I guess but that's so much trouble there's got to be some way to salvage this. Hijinx! This is exactly why I came here, baboons and hijinx! Okay, how bad could this be? The meat is cold, so I have no idea how old it was when it was put in their cooler, but its been kept cold. Okay, so if I put it in the car right now and then do my thing for a few hours and drive back, it'll be fine. Yeah! Of course it'll be good, we've done way worse stuff with meat while camping, I'll just make sure I cook it right when I get back and cook it straight to hell. Everything will be fine.

So I did just that, and I even happened to have a clean plastic bag in the car to protect the truck from getting meat juice everywhere. Excellent, the weather is even cooling down and the clouds are rolling in, so the meat wouldn't bake in the car.

Pleased with myself, I returned to the region, though I missed almost all of Thieve. Well, time to actually get some food (which turned out to be a shwarma). I wasn't really interested in Captain Stu, and I needed a stage break since the next three were gonna be the bonanza, or so I was told. I went to inspect the DJ tent.
only my camera can truly convey how bumpin this tent was
The DJ tent was created to allow MC's and DJ's to rap and rhyme and place funky beats ranging from reggae to techno. I wanted to see what Chamber Concept was all about, since they were given the spotlight of the festival at the DJ tent. What I found was a colored and a black dude rapping while two white guy laid the beats. It wasn't bad but it wasn't anything special, either. Rap lyrics are usually beyond me, and the beats weren't very interesting, since that's hardly the focus of the music. Oh well, I can stop by later to get glimpses of what other DJ's are doing.

Fine, well I don't want either musical choice so... more comedy! It happened to be improv time right around then. They were pretty funny, what can I say? Not as funny as the straight up stand-ups, but still quality stuff. Quality enough for me to lolly about there a while longer and miss the beginning of Desmond and the Tutus.
TUUT TUUT. Aha. Ha. ha. Fatty, you'd better be reading these.
Right, so they sound an awful lot like another Harry Potter tribute band. But they're really just a generic indie rock band. Shocking, isn't it. Still enjoyable to listen to for half an hour. I was pretty stoked for the next band, called Freshlyground. According to rumor, Freshlyground was some real fusion music where you get all parts of South African culture coming together, which is the kind of thing I really like to see, given my adoration for similar such projects like the Afro Celt Sound System.
There was this huge townie Irish guy standing behind me who knew all the words to the ballad they played about LOOOOVE
Freshlyground was pretty excellent. It was pretty much everything I was expecting. I'm not sure what else to say since I already gave you the link to their site and music. Here look at more pictures.
Around this time the wind started to pick up and it was getting darker, so I moved further into the crowd to absorb their heat, which was a fine move. I caught this really nice scene on camera as the sun passed over the hills.
Despite being a hippie festival, I didn't see a lot of drugs out. The festival seemed to be pretty clear about not allowing illicit substances. Then again, when did that ever stop anyone? There was way more weed at the Brandeis spring weekend than I saw out here during the day. When night did fall, then I started to get a few whiffs of kush. Still, pretty weak representation. Oh also, I learned the drinking age in South African is only 18.

Okay, so the next act was completely unknown to me. However, after conversing with some random English girls for a while about the various acts etc, I heard that most people were very excited about this band, and that they'd been touring around the world, and this was one of the first times in a while they were going to play back in their home country. From looking at the shirts people were wearing, it also seemed that these guys were the main headliner of the festival.

The band's name was Just Jinjer, and I learned later that all of what I heard was true, and that these guys are the most successful South African musical act in history. So that meant the crowd was close to 10,000 strong for these guys, everyone was really intense, and the band, seeing as it was their first time back in a while, was really looking forward to it.
there were way too many people and way too much motion for these ever to look nice on my camera
They opened with a sweet cover of Ramble On (in true hippie music festival style I was wearing my tie-dyed Zeppelin IV t-shirt), and then broke into their classic material. Even though I didn't know those songs, I had a pretty good time thanks to the showmanship of the band and the fervor of the audience. I also learned later that each member of the band had drummed professionally at one point in their career. Which explained the part of the show where the bassist when behind the kit, and the drummer and singer/guitarist brought out a dual snare apparatus and the three of them played this massive drumming orgy, culminating in a cowbell solo. I shit you not.

That was definitely the highlight of the evening. Everyone wanted them to play more, so there was gonna be let down afterwards. I stopped by the DJ tent and heard some of Richard the Third. He was at least not a hip-hop DJ, but his techno was a bit heavy on the unoriginal basslines. At the very end I heard some of Markus Wormstorm, who I enjoyed quite a bit. But he's a real DJ, since he has a bloody wikipedia page. I would have liked to have stayed for more of the dancing, since it went way late into the night when the bands had stopped, but at that time it hadn't really picked up yet and I really needed rest and meat and not to be driving back at 3AM.

So I drove back. The car I use for such excursions is without radio, which sucks once the novelty of driving in Africa wears off and it just becomes annoying. Driving on the left side of the road seems really uncomfortable at first, but its really not so bad. The bad part is the signs and the lack of lighting. The South African versions of Interstates can be these two lane highways with no lights. Or even the four and six lane highways have these sections where suddenly POOF no lights. The exit for my house, for example is just such a stretch.

When I started driving here and my supervisor was observing me learn the roads and the car, she told me that the left side driving is not so bad, but one must be careful because there will be moments when you're tired or distracted, and you take the action of a natural right side driver. I made it back to that stretch and off the exit safely. Had just a few blocks to go. Then I did it. I took an easy right from the one way exit into the wrong lane.

Thing is, it would have been fine if I could have seen the oncoming lights, and just shifted over a lane. But, there was a fucking divider between the lanes, preventing such an action. I hate dividers. Always have. So I turn on my emergency flashers and go real slow past these cars who flash their lights and honk timidly at me. And once I get past the damn divider I pull into my right lane for like 20 feet and then take my last turn into the safety of my neighborhood. Then I go to the house, and pull out my meat.

We're bad South Africans because we don't own a BBQ. I must admit that having a BBQ in use all the time while growing up was a nice deal. However, MIT weaned me away from such luxuries effectively enough. And it taught me a little creativity, I like to think. So, I turned the over on broil tossed the meat in a pat and let 'em roast.

I had to keep an eye on it all, and thankfully the meats came with turning sticks, but in a little time, by braai was complete. I meant to take a picture of the final spectacle, but sadly, I forgot because I was too hungry. I only remembered after I had devoured my feast. All in all, 50 rand well spent.

My duties complete, I tossed my belongings on the table, showered, set the security and alarm, and went to sleep.

Day 2

I awoke around 8:30 to find myself not-dead from eating the braai the previous night. There went my excuse for skipping out on the final day of the festival. I'd have bought a Saturday only pass, but that wasn't an option. Intent on getting my money's worth, I went back out Sunday morning for more because why not. There were a number of bands I was definitely looking forward to, and I was psyched about more comedy.

The drive was getting pretty dull by this point. I observed more shanty town instances this time, though. I arrived a little after 11, and caught the second half of the Simon Van Gend Band, which was okay. Indie folk rock sung by a guy who sounds pretty much the same as Colin Melloy. Son of a Thousand Blues was the next act up. I enjoyed these guys a lot. They were another mixed race band, and the black guy singing was really good on stage and had a damn fine voice. Also, their guitarist (who I think might have been French) was pretty good too. Midway through the set, they played this awesome 10 minute cover of Whole Lotta Love. It was a nice, full sound. They're on Universal's label, so they might be going places.
the singer kept telling people he was running for president in the next election and to vote for him
340mL had been recommended to me, but there was more Best of Fest in the comedy tent, so I went over there for an hour. I also caught the end of the unplugged comedy sessions (think Flight of the Conchords) which were pretty alright. The Best of Fest roundup turned out to be a few of the same people with a splash of new blood. Problem was, all of them were running out of material. When van Vuuren came on, he was still funny, but he admitted to having very few jokes left (though he managed to make plenty up based on that premise). So... it wasn't as good, but it was still pretty funny. So when I actually heard a joke repeated from previously, I left and found the last band starting.

The closers, Bed on Bricks were a punk, reggae, blues, funk, and rock fusion band? So they played music. The lead singer busted out a saxophone every now and then. Much like the comedians, I'm running out of things to say because I'm tired now and I was more tired by the time they came on. But they played a neat set, and since they were very last, the organizers even let them have an encore.
these guys reminded me Reel Big Fish... just a tiny bit
I wanted to leave as soon as that was done, however. There was more raving in DJ tend till 6 o'clock or something, and it sounded alright, but there was no way I or anyone else had proper energy for that. It was time to leave.

The drive back was mostly uneventful as always, except for the increase in traffic due to people leaving the festival. Nothing too slow. However, the skies grew dark near Cape Town, and eventually opened up on the highway, unleashing torrents of hail. The clouds were think above me, but over the bay to the west, the sun lit up the stormy countryside. It was quite a sight, blinding but impressive. I would have taken a camera except for the extreme and idiotic danger that would have entailed.

And I made it back unscathed. Plus the car had been washed of all the dirt it had accumulated from being in the field for two weeks. But, I needed to refill the tank, and that wasn't such a pleasant experience for my wallet (350 bloody rand).

So, in retrospect, it was a pretty excellent time. Well worth the money and time investment. I got all kinds of tips on bands and music to listen to. If you're a listener of the WMBR radio show Droppin' Knowledge, you'll likely here some of these bands on the airwaves. The comedy was great, and I now possess knowledge of who and where I can find good shows in Cape Town. I definitely want to see van Vuuren again.

The configuration of three venues, one for music, one for comedy, and one for dancing, was rather brilliant, in my opinion. Maybe, I'm just lucky to be attracted to all three of these forms of entertainment. However, I've not seen other places put such a strong emphasis on the stuff that wasn't the big music on the main stage. The smaller festival size may have this balance possible. All I know is that it worked.

The people? Yeah, mostly white English people. A lot of hippies, but the music was mainstream enough to attract others. I met a surprising number of Americans. I'm amazed how many of them hail from the Boston area. A lot of couples were here, but a pretty young crowd overall. The comedy folks were more mature, but the vast majority of people were in their 20's or younger.

Thus ended my first significant foray into the world of the South African music scene. Daisies, as I've been told, is pretty representative... though it doesn't explain what the other black 3/4's of the population listens to. Figuring that one out is going to be a bit more of a challenge... and if I wanted to do it right, probably quite dangerous.

In conclusion, the reason this is part I is because part II will arrive in December when The Killers come to play in a different field at different wine estate outside of Cape Town. Voerspoort!