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.