Friday, May 28

The Rugby

My pleasant relationship with Rugby began many months ago, in one of the ubiquitous Virgin Active gyms which one can find all across Cape Town and beyond. In Cape Town, its effectively impossible to find a gym other than Virgin Active, who basically has a monopoly on the trade. As with any intelligent monopoly, Virgin Active is rather expensive, which is why I ultimately decided not to join. I spend all day running around the woods with monkeys, so paying 700 Rand a month did not seem like a worthwhile investment.

Nevertheless, my thanks go out to Virgin Active for presenting me with my first rugby game. There I was, waiting to speak with a VA customer representative and his firmly muscled... apprentice? Bodyguard? In the waiting room, they were kind enough to leave a South African sports network on the TV. There, I witnessed my first professional rugby game.
I fell for this shirt the moment I saw it, but damned if I paid $45 for it. Its good to know that SOME clothes are cheaper in SA.
I was captivated almost immediately. I don't remember which teams were playing, the closest I can get is one of their star players, a massive white fellow with long, dark brown hair. Rugby is often compared to American football, and the game did strike me as similar, excepting a few notable differences. The pace is much quicker, the moves feel much more athletic, and there are of course no pads.

Several months later, after having rugby games mentioned to me quite a few times, occasionally as a suggestion, the posse looked into getting tickets, and found it all quite agreeable. 70 Rand for a decent seat? Of course we'll go. We had to get it together though, the local team - the Stormers, was only playing one more regular game at Newlands Stadium for more than a month as this is the season of the Super 14 Tournament. So, we committed and bought ourselves tickets for the March 20th match against the Free State Cheetahs.

I'll say it again, Rugby is huge in South Africa. The hugeness is derived largely from the Afrikaans speaking population, which includes Afrikaners, Coloreds, and some other Europeans. The players in the league appear to still be mostly white, but the crowd was surprisingly diverse. The Afrikaans influence was pretty notable when most of the big text is in Afrikaans before English (if English appeared at all, which is damn rare in the city these days). Most unpleasant was some young white dude who practically accosted us as we were trying to find our way in through the crowd. He came out of nowhere and talked at us in Afrikaans, until he picked up on the fact that we weren't going to respond and were moving away from him hastily. I was doing my best to fit in by wearing my stylized Springboks T-shirt (see above); just maybe it worked too well.

Soon after the game began, the two of us who made it on time realized that there was a tiny problem: we didn't really know the rules of the game. It was obvious that they were trying to score touchdowns (try's) and kick drop (field) goals, but the passing and tackling and throw-ins and scrums were... unclear to us. It didn't help that there were no video monitors which we had a decent viewing angle on, and more surprisingly, no loud overhead announcers. Plus, we picked seats on the Stormer side of the field because they were "our" team, but they dominated the majority of the game so we didn't get to see too much of the action up close. Don't get me wrong, it was all great to watch. The crowd was lively, the action as heavy, and we decided to make up our own rules when we couldn't figure out what was going on, which was quite delightful.

Rainer arrived just before halftime. He had been taking the train, which was delayed 40 minutes. Seeing as it was about quitting time and there was a game in Newlands, the train was packed. When half-time hit, we all went to look for beer and boerewors. We couldn't seem to locate any of the sausage vendors now that the game had started, but the pub was easy enough to find. I played a zone defense while one of our party worked to the front and purchased cans of Black Label. It was then we discovered that we could not leave the pub room with beer. "No alcohol past this point," the short colored security woman told me.

Now I found (and still find) this damn confusing. Its rugby! Its South Africa! How can they not let people drink in the stands? They'd make a fortune! The best reason we could come up with was that the crowds became too rowdy if they could drink in the stands. I'm not convinced.

So, we (okay, maybe just I) chugged our beer and ran back our to our seats for the second half. In short, the Stormers continued to dominate, closing out the game with a 21-8 victory over the Cheetahs. Here is a proper journalist's round up of the game, from people who can appreciate the individual and team talents/moves on the field. Apparently there were quite a few injuries. I didn't really notice, but I can't say I'm at all surprised.

We worked our way out of the stadium, through the massive crowd to our distantly parked car. I'm not sure how Newlands can support that stadium, but its been there in one capacity or another for decades, so they must know what they're doing. For our post-game show, we went into town somewhere to find delicious food (probably wors rolls), and then probably drank more beer somewhere else.
mmmmmm so good BEST SAUSAGE EVER
One of these days I'm going to need to make a post all about my adventures in Deliciousland with my good pal the boerewors.

Saturday, May 22

Two Strange Old Men

In the main troop, there are two old males called Bertrand and Chester, both of whom I've mentioned before. At first it was difficult to tell the difference between the two, as both were toothless, scarred, and shaggy. Both distinguished themselves by being friendly with the children, and occasionally, fiercely protective of the young juvenile baboons.

It was not till some time later that the two elders were able to distinguish themselves from each other. For instance, I eventually noticed that Bertrand has a little jagged fragment of canine in one corner of his mouth; it isn't completely missing like in Chester's mouth. Chester, on the other hand, is the nuclear family man, and Bertrand has a little cloud of juveniles about him most of the time, but he's not exclusive to one female.

Something else that's unclear is where these two sit in the male hierarchy. Aaron is clearly the alpha male of the troop, but no one has been able to tell who's higher up, Bert or Chester. There's also Damian to figure into the matter, who is probably sitting in the number 2 slot, above both Bertrand and Chester.

One particularly interesting morning did nothing to clear up the situation. It began the way most mornings do, the troop came down from the trees and began traveling toward a large feeding site to the north.

I'd been wondering about the relative hierarchical positions of these two for months, so when I saw Chester present to Bertrand along the path, I began to furiously take notes on the scene. These two are both quite old, each probably almost 20 years of age. Since baboon males disperse around age 7, find a new troop, and stick with that troop for the rest of their lives, these two blokes have almost certainly spent a lot of time together over the past decade. There is history here.

Right now I need to say a few words on the male-male mount, a ubiquitous dominance behavior. The smallest manifestation is the act of presentation: the dominant individual (dom) will usually be stationary (sometimes walking), and the submissive individual (sub) will stop and present its rear end to the higher ranking male. Most of the time, the lower male will quickly dart away after a few moment of presentation. However, there is a whole sequence to this behavior, which mimics the act of mating. The progression is as follows:
  1. sub male presents to dom
  2. dom will lip smack at sub
    • sub will sometimes edge closer to dom, baring teeth (another submissive gesture)
  3. if sub is close enough, dom will reach out and touch the sub, usually above the ischial callosity by the tail
  4. dom will place the other hand on sub's rump, and begin to stand and move towards sub
  5. dom assumes a standing position directly behind sub, with dom's crotch about level with sub's callosity
    • the dom might raise one foot and place it on the back of the sub's knee 
  6. dom may even give sub a few faux thrusts
At any point in the process, the sub can dart away, ending the encounter. It appears to be the choice of the sub, and probably depends on how close the two individuals are in the hierarchy, and what local condition and mood have been that day. Behaviors at the end of the chain are seen pretty infrequently, since the sub rarely let's the process progress to that point.

Getting back to Bertie and Chester - Chester presented to Bertie, complete with lip smacks. Chester just walked away after a second or two, no quick darts like one would expect to see from a submissive juvenile. Bertrand got up and followed after about a minutes. The two were at the back of the troop, but still surrounded by some females and the usual cohort of infants and young juveniles.

Well, that seemed to settle it. Chester was submissive to Bertrand. I had suspected this for a time, since while Chester is clearly larger, Bert seems to be younger, as indicated by the lone remaining canine.

I was thrown for a loop when a few minutes later, when Chester plopped himself down on a tree stump after a grueling fifty meter walk. Bertrand came walking up, slowed as he passed, and presented.

This did not seem right to me. Just five minutes earlier, Bertrand had appeared dominant, and now he was acting clearly submissive. What had changed in those five minutes? What could have changed? The two of them had been twenty meters apart, zig-zagging through the forest, occasionally foraging, seeming to be oblivious of each other.

The situation grew stranger when the behavior was repeated. Again. And Again. This continued for about two hours: every five to ten minutes, one of these guys would present to the other. There never appeared to be any pattern to the exchanges. Once or twice, the two progressed all the way to butt touching (hands only, not crotch). How intimate.

I was exasperated by these two guys. I had been meticulously observing the pair and taking notes on their behavior, but I'd no idea what to make of this interchange. I wasn't going to learn any truths about the male hierarchy; I thought I was missing several key pieces of information, and I was right. It was very interesting to watch, but at the same time, damn frustrating.

Fortunately for me, everything kicked up a notch when these two finally began a physical quarrel. I missed the outbreak, as is usually the case. I only became aware when the wahoo's and screams began. The rest of the troop took to the trees, and Aaron became alert, but did not seem involved. It was Bertrand and Chester who were thrashing around with each other in a a large thicket. They were out of sight until Bertrand followed Chester into a tree which reached above the bushes, placing them in view. The two reached the crown, continued with a few more wahoo's, and then, Chester leaped from the top of the tree, down into the bushes.

The ground was probably 20 meters below. The fight appeared to be over, and Bertrand soon reappeared. I went looking for Chester around the other side of the thicket. I found him, briskly walking away from the fight and the troop. I followed.

The old man lead me back to the troop eventually, though he took an alternate route, which I'd not seen this troop take before. After about a half an hour, Chester's meanderings return us to the body of the group, which had followed the standard path under the leadership of Aaron. Chester and Bertrand's spat was over.

As I said, I don't know what all this means. If two males had reached an equivalent level in the hierarchy, and both wanted to surpass the other, why show submissiveness? I would have expected them to awkwardly avoid and ignore each other until the tension built, and the two broke into fighting. That is, in fact, what usually happens with males. There are very few signs of the underlying struggle until the two break out into open conflict.

Tension between the two was obvious, but I was thrown off by the oddity of constant presentation behaviors, so I didn't noticed how strained their interactions were. In retrospect, the hours preceding the fight did resemble the usual pre-fight demeanors, they just had the submission displays thrown in. Were the displays not present, I probably wouldn't have noticed anything amiss before the fight. Males signals are usually very subtle, and while I have seen the signs of a fight before, most of the time I miss them.

I've pondered the events of this morning many times since, and discussed it with several colleagues. I haven't had the resources to investigate the matter thoroughly from South Africa, but when find myself with a reprieve, I'll delve into it (in the meantime, if you are curious, I recommend this paper). For the moment I'm satisfied with writing it off to the antics of two strange old monkeys who have spent way too much time around one another.

Thursday, May 20

Less food more life

Extending lifespan has mixed effects on learning and memory
ScienceDaily (2010-05-19) -- Decreasing the intake of calories and tweaking the activity of the hormone insulin are two methods long known to increase lifespan in a wide range of organisms. In particular, studies have shown that longevity can be extended by reducing activity in the insulin-signaling pathway -- a chain of events through which insulin influences numerous biological processes, including metabolism, stress response and development. Now, biologists have found the first evidence that these mechanisms also have an impact on cognitive function. ... > read full article

I am a dedicated fan of anti-aging research. Perhaps you might even call me a desperate fan. Furthermore, I have even done some mild experimentation with Calorie Restriction diets. Usually during the summer when I'm not swamped with so many tasks that I lose my cool and give in to the desire for eats. I will say that I felt damn good during those time, but I'd be willing to believe my reduced stress level could be in part (or mostly) responsible. But I definitely did lose significant amounts of weight, which probably contributed to the "raised energy level" the caloric restriction types like to talk about. In organism more advanced than roundworms (say, humans), its also true that caloric restriction has its own effect on insulin levels, thus tying it closer to these studies.

Not too surprisingly, both processes tie back to the notorious CREB molecule. CREB pretty much needs to be everywhere cAMP is, and cAMP needs to be everywhere a cell wants to start a signal cascade, and pretty much every cell does that. Okay that might be a major generalization. You want more thought than that? Well then don't ask the guy who took biochemistry on pass/fail (and considers it one of the better choices of his undergraduate career), go read those wikipedia articles I linked to.

The moral? Eat lots of good food while you're young, and then get into CR when you get older. I'd guess between age 25 and 30. I'm a bit more hesitant at this point to say that people should start sticking themselves with insulin unless they're diabetic.

Tuesday, May 18

Sediba means natural spring in Sotho

One of the worst parts about traveling around is having to deal with a laptop keyboard for all your purposes (if you've even got a lappy with you at all). I'll go ahead and say it: laptop keyboards take the joy out of life.

A funny thing happened. I was going through some old blog posts on my feeds which I hadn't gotten around to reading in some time. I opened one of the stories from Afarensis in a new tab, but then didn't get around to reading it, probably because is got lost in the seventy or more tabs I keep open at most times.

Yes, I acknowledge that I have a problem.

When I did return to said tab, I had completely forgotten that some time had passed, and the news was old to begin with. I also very foolishly blocked out the little line of red text meant to inform me that this information dated back to mid-April.

The story concerned the recent discovery of Authrulopithecus sediba, the latest hominid fossil skeleton discovered in Africa. South Africa to be precise. It seems we've found yet another quality missing link. But, if you're behind the times like me and want the story, I recommend you ask the good Mr. Hawks.

The last amusing bit on this is that word of this discovery passed to me some months before the break to the public through an acquaintance of a friend of a colleague, or some chain like that. Not that there was any actual information conveyed, just "something pretty big was discovered up north." Perhaps that was the cost of my tardiness in getting the actual story about sediba.

Tuesday, May 11

Relevant recent research round-up

Much has been going on in the various realms of mind research, and quite a little backlog of interesting studies have come off the presses. Stories featured in order of appearance. 

Compulsive eating shares addictive biochemical mechanism with cocaine, heroin abuse, study shows
ScienceDaily (2010-03-29) -- In a newly published study, scientists have shown for the first time that the same molecular mechanisms that drive people into drug addiction are behind the compulsion to overeat, pushing people into obesity. ... > read full article

Addiction fascinates me. I, for one, greatly enjoy eating. I appreciate food, but one can enjoy a good meal and eat a whole lot of it. A few years ago, I could get away with eating any quantity of food, and I wouldn't gain any significant quantity of weight. That's changed lately, which bothers me since I appear to be just as ravenous in my desire for food. Am I addicted to eating? If one combines the statistics for obesity, alcoholism, and drug addictions, I get the feeling you'd find yourself confronted with a disturbingly large portion of the population. This problem may be more prevalent in the States, which is apt enough, since NIH funds the research.

Unconscious learning uses old parts of the brain
ScienceDaily (2010-04-07) -- A new study provides evidence that basic human learning systems use areas of the brain that also exist in the most primitive vertebrates, such as certain fish, reptiles and amphibians. The study involved an investigation into the limbic striatum, one of the evolutionarily oldest parts of the brain, and the ability to learn movements, consciously and unconsciously, through repetition. ... > read full article
I am a big "fan" of studying the unconscious parts of the brain. The older it gets, the more important it is for our functionality. Of course, if you look at stuff that is too old, then you wind up dealing with medulla structures which regulate the contractions of your digestive track. Since consciousness is probably a very recent development, it makes perfect sense that unconscious (implicit) learning and memory is tied to older brain structures. Its good that someone confirmed this.

Brain shuts off in response to healer's prayer - life - 27 April 2010 - New Scientist
WHEN we fall under the spell of a charismatic figure, areas of the brain responsible for scepticism and vigilance become less active. That's the finding of a study which looked at people's response to prayers spoken by someone purportedly possessing divine healing powers...
I'd like to begin by stating that I heartily dislike The New Scientist. I was going to say that I "abhor" the publication, but that isn't quite accurate. I would be okay if TNS accepted its role as a popular, light science publication, but they continually attempt to make themselves out to be a serious journal, which the quality of their reports prohibits.

Anyway, this research is still pretty interesting. I'd definitely wager that this commanding effect of charismatic leaders can be seen outside of religious domains.

Social networking helps hermit crabs find homes
ScienceDaily (2010-04-28) -- Biologists have discovered that, contrary to their name, hermit crabs may locate new and improved housing using previously unknown social networking skills. These behaviors may shed light on any animal that relies on discrete and reusable resources, from hole-nesting woodpeckers to urban apartment dwellers. ... > read full article
Despite the buzz-wordiness of the title, this is exceptionally interesting stuff - they've discovered new behaviors among hermit crabs! If a crab in need of a home finds an empty shell that is too large, it will wait around for another crab to come by and take the shell in hopes of picking up the larger crab's old shell. I won't argue that there are massive impacts on our understanding of human social behavior, but still, that's pretty neat.

Researcher explores role of human behavior in infectious disease emergence
ScienceDaily (2010-04-30) -- A wildlife scientist has examined how different human behaviors influence disease transmission between domestic dogs and the African wild dog, an endangered species. ... > read full article
On that last note, here's a study which definitely does have a lot to say about the betterment of the human condition via understanding social behavior. On reading this story, my first musing concerned how far back these human-dog social behaviors related to disease go back. Dog domestication could easily predate the agricultural revolution, and possibly even the formation of complex hunter-gatherers. Thus, the origin of these behaviors might be evolutionary and not environmental, which ought to alter our approach to handling these issues.

How nerve cells distinguish odors
ScienceDaily (2010-05-03) -- Whether different odors can be quickly distinguished depends on certain synapses in the brain that inhibit nerve stimulation. Researchers have shown that mice in which a certain receptor in the olfactory center is missing can distinguish similar smells more quickly than mice without genetic manipulation. ... > read full article
 Once, I did a bit of work in the neuroscience of taste and smell perception (in rats and mice). I worked at the systems/behavioral level, but there's a great deal more research occurring one step down, at the cellular level. This stuff is some pretty heavy neurochemistry, but if you are up to date on that knowledge, this is intriguing research.

Cavemen among us: Some humans are 4 percent Neanderthal - CSMonitor.com
We have met Neanderthals, and they are us – or about 1 to 4 percent of each of us.

That is one implication of a four-year effort to sequence the Neanderthal genome – essentially setting out in order some 3 billion combinations of four key molecules that together represent the Neanderthals' genetic blueprint...
Yet another result of the data being churned out of Svante Pääbo's legendary Neanderthal genomics project. As they mention in the article, "the results and their further refinement are expected to yield a treasure-trove of information on what makes modern humans distinct from Neanderthals, humans' closest extinct relative." Considering the prior lack of evidence in favor of any of the conflicting theories of what became of the Neanderthals, this is a fine change of pace. Plus, I'm at a lucky stage in life where I'm not in favor of any of the particular theories, so these findings do not offend my sensibilities.

Blinking neurons give thoughts away
ScienceDaily (2010-05-10) -- Scientists have used a genetic light source to measure brain signals. Electrical currents are invisible to the naked eye -- at least they are when they flow through metal cables. In nerve cells, however, scientists are able to make electrical signals visible. Scientists have now successfully used a specialized fluorescent protein to visualize electrical activity in neurons of living mice. In a milestone study, scientists are able to apply the method to watch activity in nerve cells during animal behavior. ... > read full article
I swear, I had this same idea a couple of years ago, but I didn't   Plus, I honestly didn't see how it would be a more useful technique than modern two-photon imaging techniques. The advantage I did not for see was that if one can ditch the cumbersome microscope equipment needed for two-photon excitation imaging, you could attach a fibre-optic connection which would allow you to visualize brain activity while the animal was behaving. I confess that I have a soft spot for calcium imaging, so I'm quite pleased by this, but there are still some big issues, like the fact that you can't do this in humans, and its hard to visualize the neurons below the top layers of the cortex.

Alrighty then. Until... next month?

Sunday, May 9

The least of our worries

It confuses me when baboons make it into the news in South Africa. We have no comparable phenomenon in the States, unfortunately. The closest I can think of are cougars or raccoons sneaking into suburban homes and making nests or running off with a frozen turkey. The kind of stuff you'd see on Kratz Kreatures.

Such news always human related, at least. This time, the article is about baboons who have been absconding with food at the SA/Zimbabwe border. I'm pretty sure this has been a frequent occurrence for many years, and would not seem to be newsworthy. Apparently the fact that the World Cup is approaching makes this crucial business.

Let it be known that these baboon live in the upper west corner province, Limpopo. Baboons are just these guys that hang around everywhere up there, which means they're aren't protected for the most part. The part I don't get is how this is particularly relevant to the World Cup. The closest stadium is in Polokwane (recently built and named after former ANC YL president Peter Mokaba), but the only games being played there are four minor group stage matches. And at the Zimbabwe border? I think that given the political circumstances, there's not going to be a huge number of people coming over from Zimbabwe to watch world cup matches. My final thought is that it is possible that an abnormally large number of tourists will be headed north into the bush for safaris while they're here for the Cup, and the government is worried about misunderstandings between these tourists and the baboons.

Well, any press is good press, right? Even if these are the very least of the country's worries surrounding the coming World Cup...

Wednesday, May 5

When you're on top

From my perspective, the scene began with Punzle and a sub-adult male having a spat. Punzle probably started it; she's known for being mean to anyone she can push around. Luckily for her, she's quite high up there in the ranks, so seldom does a day go by that she doesn't mess with someone who probably doesn't deserve the magnitude of grief she gives.

As usual for females, Punzle was shrieking at the guy while he silently threatened her, and pushed her back. He was much larger, and despite her rank, his physical presence was something that could not be ignored.

But rank did come in handy, since a minute, Queen Lottie, overlady of the entire troop, arrived. She and Punzle appear to be on good terms, most of the time. Today Lottie appeared early in the fight, to back up Punzle. The female screams doubled in magnitude, but the sub-adult was not particularly perturbed. This guy was not just some juvenile - any day now, he could pack up and leave for another troop, ready to begin working on his career as a full fledged adult.

With him pitted against two females, the match appeared even. Lottie and Punzle would drive him back a bit, but the next moment, the male would lunge and the pair of females would retreat. Ultimately, the females appeared to be losing ground.

So, they resorted to blatant social manipulation. Aaron was lying about 30 meters away, and today he didn't seem to care about the fight at all. I would say that about two-thirds of the time, he ignores the melodrama. Aaron's behavior didn't change a bit, today. What changed was Lottie and Punzle proximity to the massive alpha. One of their retreats turned into an about-face, and ended with them standing below the rock upon which Aaron lazed.

The sub-adult found himself in a quandary. He obviously was quite annoyed at the females to have persisted this long, but now he risked arousing the rage of Aaron. Despite appearing not to care (from my perspective), baboon moods can change suddenly. Lottie and Punzle were two of Aaron's favorite females, so the sub-adult could only push so far.

The three stood at an impasse for a couple of minutes. Lottie and Punzle continued to scream, though less often and at lower volume than previously. The male continued to threaten, but kept his distance to at least ten meters, much further than he had previously dared to venture. It was if Aaron's body generated an invisible perimeter which the younger baboon knew he could not cross. In the end, the sub-adult male gave up and moved on with his day, leaving Punzle and Lottie alone.

The females triumphed. However, there are very few females in the troop who could have pulled such a stunt. Suffice to say, its good to be a top ranked female.

Woah, how is it May already?