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This is wild. Crows in this study could tell that recordings of people speaking Japanese (the language of the researchers) was different from recordings of people speaking Dutch. We can’t do that listening to birds. Unless we were a highly trained specialist, we couldn’t distinguish between mockingbird songs in one part of the country from mockingbird songs in another part of the country, though each song has a ‘dialect” that makes them mutually unintelligible. All the mockingbird would know is that another mockingbird is yelling at it. It has to learn to sing in the local dialect (meaning mockingbirds have learned cultures, actually.) But when a crow hears recordings of humans speaking different languages, it can tell that we are not speaking the same language, and it reacts to them differently. They were used to Japanese. They were wary of the recording in Dutch. What were they hearing? Japanese isn’t tonal like Chinese, so it’s not that the crows can tell that one is melodic and the other not. Can they detect the different phonemes (the vowel and consonant sounds) the languages use? Can they distinguish stresses, like what part of a sentence rises or drops? Can they detect the specific rhythms or sound patterns of grammar? How is it that a goddam bird can tell if a person is speaking Dutch or speaking Japanese while we with our enormous brains can’t tell if a recording of a mockingbird screaming at five in the morning is in Southern California Mockingbirdese or Danish Mockingbirdese? I can write about the concept of a crow distinguishing human languages, but damn if I can imagine what it is they actually hear in our human sounds.
You wouldn’t think you could have a climate change caused ecological disaster in our fish tank. But last week’s heat wave was so extreme it overheated the water, killing a few of the fish as well as unseen zillions of microscopic algae. Days later they clogged the filter in a rank slimy dark mass and very quickly turned the water anoxic and disgustingly rank. Lost a couple fish. I think the last of our herd of danios was rendered extinct. I was looking for the clown loach in the cloudy water. It’s five inches long, tiger striped and a furiously active beast, but there was neither hide nor hair. Nor scale. Suddenly like a vision out of Moby Dick it appeared, it’s creamy white underside a flash of light in the gloom, desperately trying to reach the surface and oxygen. It hung vertically in the water, gasping, slowly suffocating. I reached in and grabbed at it but it slipped out of my fingers and disappeared into the plants. I began thinking about where to get his replacement (they’re champion snail eaters .) Then it was there again, hanging vertically, surreal, dying. I took a bucket, put a couple inches of water in it, and grabbed the loach again, it was too weak to wriggle free. I dropped it in the bucket. It rested on the bottom with its mouth at the surface, barely breathing. Nothing more I could do. An hour later I heard some furious thrashing about in the bucket. A temper tantrum was a good sign. I added more water. Within two hours it was back to its surly self. When I’m done with the aquarium clean up—you don’t even wanna know what comes up when you siphon the floor of a fish tank—and replace a third of the water, I’ll put him back in. The filter has already cleaned and oxygenated the water to such a degree that the platys and wandering about picking up food on the bottom—they spent the last couple days at the very top. I had a fan blowing across the surface all night as well, and though I’m not sure how it definitely helps to oxygenate (and cool) the water, like a cooling ocean breeze. The fish certainly dug it, all of them scurrying about where the air flow is strongest. Fish, who the fuck knows. Anyway, another crisis averted. Not quite as creepy as when the zebra danios became pescicidal maniacs, but definitely more icky.
I suppose you want a picture. Better yet a video. Here, a perfectly healthy clown loach. Animal Planet, call me.
You’ll be pleased to find out that I just purchased twenty ghost shrimp on EBay. I thought the loach had eaten the previous herd of ten, but I was delighted to discover there were survivors. So now I’m getting a bunch more, figuring the loach will take his share but the rest will be around to partake in the great fish dying due anytime now, as the vast herd of platys reaches their life expectancy and bloops their last bloop. Some fish corpses float, some sink. The floaters I scoop up with the net and toss into the planter out front. No point in wasting good fertilizer. The sinkers are a pain in the ass. So the shrimp get those. They can reduce a fish carcass to nothing in a matter of days. I’d rather not think about it. And the platys own culinary kinks guarantee the population will not recover, because a platy’s favorite dish is fresh born platy. None of the babies survive the feasts, and as there is no longer a dense jungle of floating vegetation for the fry to hide in—they ate that too, for roughage I guess—the babies are easy pickings. You can see the adults gathering together and leisurely devouring platy DNA. It’s fucked up. But it did neatly stop the aquarium’s population explosion, and there was one baby, as in a single fish, that has made it to adulthood in the past year. They’re efficient, you gotta give them that. So efficient they’re eating themselves into extinction in our tank. Platys live three to four years, typically, but invariably fish in our tank live to the outer edge of their life expectancy, so I won’t be surprised to see many of them last for five. But eventually the lot of them, nearly all of which born in a single year, will go to fish heaven, leaving all sorts of niches for us to fill with species that don’t fuck so goddamn much. It’s like having an aquarium full of drummers.
Just posted this on BricksBrain.com:
For a writer I certainly don’t do a lot of writing anymore, then again I’ve never felt less epileptic in my life. Writing sets off epilepsy which creates more writing. The more the epilepsy, the more creative the writing. The more creative the writing, the more the epilepsy. The more the epileptic writing, the more the brain damage. Oops. Thus, sidelined, I just kick back and watch all the shit go down. These are marvelous times for watching the shit go down. Glorious times, even. Watching history happen from our little urban forested haven. Lots of time to read and watch old movies. The less the epilepsy, it turns out, the more the reading. I’m wending my way though stacks of turgid volumes. Don’t even ask. The constant writing in my head got in the way when I was trying to read. It’s good to have the fountain of words turned off. I can listen to people now and not rewrite what they are saying. I can listen to music now and not hear it as writing. I can look at the landscape and not see it as stories. I can listen to birds sing and not hear language. I just hear birds singing.
A plastic baby platypus:
A real baby platypus:
Now you know.
Apparently the Coronavirus has become more contagious. It appears we can get infected more easily now than during the first wave. There’s nothing mysterious about this. It’s just natural selection at work. Masking and self isolating was impeding the virus, dramatically reducing the rate of infection. So the most contagious of the viruses are the ones that manage to spread. Suddenly it becomes much more dangerous to go without masks, to be around other people, to share air indoors with those other people. We’re now at the point that the likelihood of being infected by being indoors around others is apparently much higher than it was in the spring. Masked or not, being in restaurants, grocery stores, bars, churches, or conference rooms is risky. Being indoors where anyone is going unmasked is dangerous. Being indoors where people are talking loudly, or laughing, or yelling or singing is very high risk. Being in a car or a bus with people is risky. Hanging out with friends indoors is risky. Masks reduce the danger that you will be the one spreading the virus, and it’s somewhat effective at keeping you from being infected. But not being indoors where other people are indoors is the most full proof method of not being infected. People are kidding themselves otherwise. Every trip to the grocery store is a roll of the dice. Every time you sit down inside a restaurant is a roll of the dice. Sitting down at a bar is rolling snake eyes.
I’ve stopped looking at my Facebook feed. Too many pictures of crowded places. Too many complaints about all the people in the grocery store. Too many people with pictures of them with too many friends. It only takes one virus exhaled one time by one person and inhaled by you within two or three minutes to give you a ten per cent chance of becoming desperately ill for a very long time. Sure, that sounds like long odds, until you realize just how many viruses an infected person exhales in a single breath. If the recorded case numbers of Covid 19 is one tenth the actual number of infected people, and every one of those people is shedding viruses with every breath, then there are one million people in Los Angeles County exhaling billions of viruses today. One million people is ten per cent of the county’s population. One out of every ten people around us is infected, and only one out of those ten infected people are aware that they are infected. 90% of the people infected with Covid-19 don’t realize they are exhaling perfect little copies of the coronavirus. Next time you’re in the store look around and think about that. Imagine you can see the viruses, a mist of Covid 19 wafting about as people move, breathe and talk.
Considering that in LA there is a big variety of stores (we have eighteen) that will deliver a huge range of groceries in under two hours to your home for a very minimal fee I am completely mystified as to why nearly everyone I know is still going shopping themselves. Grocery stores are probably the highest risk place you can go for Covid infection this side of a hospital. There is no need whatsoever to go to one. There is no need to go to a pharmacy where people with hay fever and colds go to buy over the counter medications and cough and sneeze. You don’t need to get stuck in a line for take out. You have options. Fyl and I haven’t been in a store or a restaurant or a business of any kind almost since the shutdown. Yet our fridge, freezer, cupboards, bar and medicine cabinet are stuffed with everything you put in fridges, freezers, cupboards, bars and medicine cabinets. We have restaurant leftovers up the wazoo. We have all the stuff that other people are going to grocery stores, pharmacies, liquor barns, and restaurants for. And those people are several hundred times more likely to get infected than are we up here atop our hill in isolation.
Because every single time an even asymptotic infected person exhales, even just a simple silent breath, viruses tumble out and float about in the air for several seconds. If you breathe in air where they breathed out air just seconds before you have a very strong chance of inhaling a Covid virus, even just a single tiny one, that they just shed. Because the six foot radius we’re supposed to be keeping is a dynamic radius, so that everywhere an infected person just moved from leaves a danger zone. It’s not the infected person himself that is dangerous as much as it is the air in which he just exhaled. That is where the virus exists in the largest numbers, in the exhaled air we leave around us, so there will be a trail of air following the infected person that will be full of living viruses for at least several seconds.
Next time you’re in your favorite grocery store, whether it’s a big giant chain store or a smaller, hipper one, look at all the people and imagine the infected air an infected fellow shopper would leave in their wake. Who knows how many Covid viruses are expelled with that person’s every exhalation. And who know who among your fellow shoppers is asymptomatically infected and shedding viruses like there’s no tomorrow, which there might not be for the poor high risk bastard who breathes in one. Because you only need to inhale one of those exhaled viruses. If it fixes itself to a cell in your lungs with its spikey little protuberances, it will puncture the cell wall and begin feeding off your cell’s innards like some ultra microscopic lamprey to get the nutrients it needs to generate copies of itself. It reproduces like the viruses that inhabit an infected computer. The principal is virtually identical and if you’re not protected by the right antibodies, it will do to your internal organs what a computer virus does to your hard drive. All that from the one single virus you breathed in at MegaMart or Hipster Haven, even though you were six feet away from everyone else in the store.
Of course this doesn’t only apply to shoppers at your favorite grocery store. It could be the completely healthy looking couple in front of you on the sidewalk. It could be one of the people in line in front of you at the Thai take-out. It could be one of your very best friends in front of you, smiling.
Listening to these mockingbirds improv reminds me of a factoid I read today in Daniel Tammet’s Embracing the Wide Sky that in order for male songbirds to sing some of the incredibly complex songs which change constantly, up to one per cent of the neurons in their song center are replaced by new neurons every single day, which adds up pretty quickly. That’s what those mockingbird brains are doing, rebuilding themselves continuously. Not adding brain cells to what is there already, but replacing them. It’s as if in order to speak we had to replace 100% of the neurons in our language center every 100 days. That is, all the grammar we’ve hardwired into our brain is replaced by entirely new brain cells with all new intricately laced connections between them four times a year. It’s not quite that simple (some of the neurons in the mockingbird’s song center will be replaced more often than others and others are more permanent), but still, our grammar and vocabulary would completely and fundamentally change over a period of a hundred days. Not all at once, but a little everyday so that you’d be speaking a completely different language in April from what you were speaking on January 1. I’m writing this in English now and a hundred days from now I’d be writing this in Armenian, and next year in Sioux. Plus I’d wake you up at five in the morning screaming outside your window.
Most verbs in standard English have six possible forms, e.g. take, takes, took, take, taking, taken. But in Archi, a language spoken in a few small villages tucked away in a valley deep in the Caucasus Mountains, a verb can have 1,502,839 possible forms. A grammar nazi would go out of his anal little mind.
It’s all so eerie. Emails have just about stopped. Facebook is a trickle. Even Twitter has slowed dramatically. Come nightfall you don’t see people on the street, the neighbors have almost disappeared, traffic is almost not there, and now almost everyone on social media has vanished. This is the weirdest fucking time I can ever remember. Where are we all?
It’s 3 am now and I keep thinking I have stuff to do today but I don’t. Places to go but there aren’t. People to meet but none of them either. I go out on our sundeck in the middle of the city and it’s silence.