strange behaviors

Cool doings from the natural and human worlds

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    Every Creeping Thing: True Tales of Faintly Repulsive Wildlife: “Conniff is a splendid writer–fresh, clear, uncondescending, and with never a false step; one can’t resist quoting him.” (NY Times Book Review)

    The Species Seekers:  Heroes, Fools, and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth by Richard Conniff is “a swashbuckling romp” that “brilliantly evokes that just-before Darwin era” (BBC Focus) and “an enduring story bursting at the seams with intriguing, fantastical and disturbing anecdotes” (New Scientist). “This beautifully written book has the verve of an adventure story” (Wall St. Journal)

    Swimming with Piranhas at Feeding Time by Richard Conniff  is “Hilariously informative…This book will remind you why you always wanted to be a naturalist.” (Outside magazine) “Field naturalist Conniff’s animal adventures … are so amusing and full color that they burst right off the page …  a quick and intensely pleasurable read.” (Seed magazine) “Conniff’s poetic accounts of giraffes drifting past like sail boats, and his feeble attempts to educate Vervet monkeys on the wonders of tissue paper will leave your heart and sides aching.  An excellent read.” (BBC Focus magazine)

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When Did Libraries Start Committing Plagiarism?

Posted by Richard Conniff on January 8, 2014

This is an entertaining piece, published by the University of London’s Senate House Library on its web site.

The author credits me at one point, and also flatters me, and I guess she thinks that’s sufficient.  Here’s the problem:  She doesn’t let on–with primitive devices like the quotation mark–that I happen to have written at least the first five paragraphs, or roughly half the article, word for word.  You will find the originals starting here and also here.

University of London.  Sounds like a big deal.  I googled it.  It was founded 175 years ago and includes such eminent institutions as The London School of Economics and the genuinely heroic London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

Could someone there please stop by the library and let them know the definition of plagiarism?  Or am I just being fussy?

The science of smiling began on the guillotine

L0035280 Four images of experiment on the electro-physiological

Image credit: Wellcome Images

In the 1840s, a Paris physician named Guillaume B.A. Duchenne was attempting to treat a patient’s facial neuralgia when he noticed that applying an electrical current caused the underlying muscle to contract sharply. As technique was too painful for experiments on living patients, Duchenne, the ever resourceful son of a French coastal buccaneer, started to work with the freshly severed heads of executed criminals and revolutionaries. To his great disappointment, these specimens did not naturally display the sort of joyful smile Duchenne would later describe as “put in play by the sweet emotions of the soul.” But by applying live electrodes to different areas of the face, he found that he could indeed make the muscles contract into recognizable facial expressions, including the smile.This story is told by Richard Conniff, a most erudite and entertaining science writer whose blog and newest publication chronicle the strange behaviours of the natural and human worlds.

Duchenne eventually moved on to living subjects, beginning with an elderly indigent whose neurological disorders apparently protected him from the pain of electrical experimentation.

And thus Duchenne demonstrated for the first time the mechanistic nature of human facial expressions. He argued that smiling, and other familiar expressions, constitute a universal language “which neither fashions nor whims can change … the same in all people, in savages and civilized nations …” This idea didn’t win wide acceptance at the time and 150 years later some still argue that culture trumps biology by pointing out that Japanese smile less because of social pressure that discourages emotional displays or by arguing that women smile more because society obliges them to pacify surly males.

However, most researchers accept that facial expressions are innate and that our facial expressions, and especially the smile, constitute a system of unconscious communication that got built into our biology long before language itself. People often equate smiling with just one emotion, happiness and thereby make it one of the most potent symbols of co-operation. But a smile can mean almost anything: biologists say the smile got its start in fear, not happiness. Darwin thought the smile was merely the first step towards laughter, the fear grin could have been a way of saying “Don’t eat me, I am harmless”. As most of us know from the work environment, the fear grin evolved from a form of appeasement into a display of friendliness and often into something far richer and more varied than that. A smile can communicate feelings as different as love or contempt, pride or submission, flirtatiousness or polite tolerance. It can be deeply comforting and reassuring or it can induce a chill of fear – Hannibal Lecter smiled when thinking of fava beans and Chianti.

A smile can keep readers in a library happy or send them into a rage. Despite the common phrase, there is no such thing as a simple smile. The human appetite for smiles makes us look for them everywhere. If something looks remotely human, we humanize it. Clifford Nass, a communication professor at Stanford University blames this tendency for one of the worst software blunders in the annals of computing which turned on the simplistic notion that everyone likes a smile. Nass blamed this on dancing raisins. In the late 1980s the California Raisin Advisory Board had a huge hit promoting its product with cartoon raisins, who smiled ebulliently and sang “I heard it through the grapevine” At about the same time, Clifford Nass talked to Bill Gates and other Microsoft executives about using animated characters as a way of making computer appear more human. And thus was born Clippy, the cartoon “Office Assistant” who appeared with rictus smile and inane assumptions when help was not needed and did not know when it was time to stop smiling.

This fascinating  new publication in the Western European Languages research collection deals with the power of the smile and humour in Spanish culture. Our richest source of information about smiles is literature; at least this is the opinion of John Rutherford, the author of “The Power of the Smile”. Humour in Spanish Culture”:

The book explores the complex relationship between the smile and the laugh and traces its historical development in Spanish life and culture. The principal source for this study of the smile is literature, but it also contains the first detailed study of the earliest expressive smile in medieval sculpture, the smile worn by the prophet Daniel in the the Pórtico da Gloria of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia in Spain which is reproduced on the back cover. Rutherford takes Galician irony or retranca, and the sarcasm or guasa of Madrid and Seville as characteristic forms of the smile and the laugh in literature respectively.

Rutherford concentrates on the medieval and early modern periods as he is interested in the transition between what he calls the “ancient fun – the fun of mockery” and “modern fun- the fun of understanding”. To this end, he traces the concept humour from its earliest uses in literature of the 14th century when humour referred to any fluid or moisture in the human body through to the 16th century when the term designated physical and mental qualities to the narrowing of the meaning to “any eccentric mental quality caused by an excess of any of the four bodily fluids” as described in Ben Jonson’s play of 1598 “Every Man and His Humour”:

By the 18th  century “humour” was being used to refer to anything in human behaviour that caused amusement. However, by the late 18th century and the early 19th century the Romantics displayed a preference for restrained amusement tinged with sadness and under this influence “humour” changed its meaning to denote the attitude which remained prevalent and influential into the 20th century. One of the first and most influential 20th century writers on humour was Sigmund Freud’s friend Theodor Lipps with his seminal work “Komik und Humor” of 1898. Freud would later begin his seminal “Jokes and their relation to the Unconscious” with a detailed consideration of Lipps’ ideas.

Rutherford makes a convincing case as to why we can learn a great deal from the “remarkable and much maligned world of the Middle Ages” when he shows how the foundations for our culture were laid during this time.  He devotes his book to the examination of four canonical books, the Poema de mio Cid, Libro de buen amor, Celestina and of course, Don Quixote. Even though the books’ emphasis is on the literature of the early modern period, the book makes ample use of the ideas of a great many theorists and Rutherford leads the reader effortlessly from the early modern period to our present day. He advances a way of reading which can bring the modern reader closer to the medieval sensibility which he calls an “informed imaginative engagement with the texts” which he achieves by bringing a willingness to the subject to accept the results of this engagement even if the results challenge conventional wisdom. His approach brings the texts from the 15th to the 21st century with all their ambiguities alive.


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