Friday, September 14, 2007

Darwinian Test on the Bike Path

Wednesday night, after a delicious meal with friends at Uncle Pete's--he has real Texas-style burnt ends now!!--our friend dropped my husband off in Arlington Heights. Jim had ridden his newer bike home earlier in the day after picking it up from Quad Cycles (broken spoke repair), so he'd left Frankenbike chained to a post. (Frankenbike is composed of many parts from two different bikes, hence the name.) It was about 9:30, and I expected him home in about 20 minutes.

Instead, he showed up almost a full hour later. I hadn't been too worried, since I knew he had his phone, but I was beginning to wonder. He finally came in at 10:30, so I asked where he'd been.

"I was leading some bikers down the Minuteman," he said.

"What?" I said, in my uniquely eloquent way.

"I was riding on the trail and nearly ran into two idiots who were stumbling around on the path with their bikes and no lights. They literally couldn't see the trail. So I offered to ride in front of them--slowly--so they could follow me to Lexington."

(If you've ever been on the Minuteman Trail, you might remember that it has no street--trail?--lamps and a lot of dense foliage surrounds it, which blocks out any ambient light as well.)

"But it was past 9:30--it's not like it JUST got dark--they had to know it would be too dark to ride without lights," I said.

"Whatever," he shrugged. "I guess I could have left them out there in the dark, but it wasn't safe. And going out on Mass Ave. without lights would probably be worse for them. As a driver, I don't like being on the road with bikers who don't know what they're doing."

That's what we call a "Darwinian Test" in our family--as in, these people should think twice before spawning.

Ah, what the hell--we all screw up sometimes. And at least I can say my nice-guy husband led two strangers to Lexington Town Center where they could safely walk their bikes the rest of the way. One day, he might need some help, too. I'm not sure if that gains you Darwinian points, but I think it raises your Karma score.

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Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Goodbye to the Smartest Birdbrain in the World

Those of us who love birds--especially parrots--can't help but mourn the passing of Alex, the amazing African Grey, who died last week at the age of 31. His death was unexpected--so much so that the news wasn't released until yesterday, because the staff at the Brandeis University research lab where Alex lived were too upset to report his death immediately.

Irene Pepperberg, the scientist who owned Alex--purchased at a pet store, his name was an acronym for Avian Learning Experiment--worked with the parrot for three decades. According to the Alex Foundation's press release,
Dr. Pepperberg’s pioneering research resulted in Alex learning elements of English speech to identify 50 different objects, 7 colors, 5 shapes, quantities up to and including 6 and a zero-like concept. He used phrases such as “I want X” and “Wanna go Y”, where X and Y were appropriate object and location labels. He acquired concepts of categories, bigger and smaller, same-different, and absence. Alex combined his labels to identify, request, refuse, and categorize more than 100 different items demonstrating a level and scope of cognitive abilities never expected in an avian species. Pepperberg says that Alex showed the emotional equivalent of a 2 year-old child and intellectual equivalent of a 5 year-old. Her research with Alex shattered the generally held notion that parrots are only capable of mindless vocal mimicry.
My husband and I have owned many parrots over the last 20 years, and each one possessed an individual personality (though many of them did seem like typical "bird brains"). Our current pet, a miniature macaw, doesn't talk like Alex did, but he's taken the art of laughing to a new level. (Really--parrots will laugh along with you, though I'm not sure they actually get the joke.)

A necropsy (animal autopsy) showed no immediate cause of Alex's death, and he'd appeared healthy at a check-up days before. In true parrot fashion, he probably had been sick for a while, but hid his weakness before just keeling over. (Showing weakness in the wild is an open invitation for parrot predators to attack.) So in the end there was probably nothing that the people who worked with--and loved--him could have done.

Alex spent his life at a variety of universities with Dr. Pepperberg; Brandeis was his last home. As a New Englander, I'm proud that he lived among us for the last several years. And although he was only 31--some African Greys live to be 50--Alex had a good run, taught us a lot, and gained the admiration and affection of plenty of us who never had the good fortune to offer him a treat.

Farewell, Alex--the bird (and human) world will miss you.

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