strange behaviors

Cool doings from the natural and human worlds

  • Richard Conniff writes about behavior, in humans and other animals, on two, four, six, and eight legs, plus the occasional slither.

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Can Mixing Bots & Humans Make Business Meetings Less Annoying?

Posted by Richard Conniff on May 17, 2017

by Richard Conniff/Scientific American

When people work together on a project, they often come to think they’ve figured out the problems in their own particular sphere. If trouble persists, it’s somebody else—engineering, say, or the marketing department—that is screwing up. That local focus means finding the best way forward for the overall project is often a struggle. But what if adding artificial intelligence to the conversation, in the form of a computer program called a bot, could actually make people in groups more productive?

This is the tantalizing implication of a study published Wednesday in Nature. Hirokazu Shirado and Nicholas Christakis, researchers at Yale University’s Institute for Network Science, were wondering what would happen if they looked at artificial intelligence (AI) not in the usual way—as a potential replacement for people—but instead as a useful companion and helper, particularly for altering human social behavior

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Donald Trump and Other Animals

Posted by Richard Conniff on October 15, 2016

                 (Art:  Tim Enthoven)

(Art: Tim Enthoven)

by Richard Conniff/New York Times

I once interviewed Donald Trump for a magazine story. The topic was rivalries, which seemed like a natural for him. But he was so bombastically short on specifics, so braggadociously vague, that in the end there was nothing to quote. I left him out of the story.

So I was surprised recently to learn, by way of an article in The New Yorker, that Mr. Trump had, in fact, quoted me in a passage from his 2004 book “Trump: Think Like a Billionaire.” I would not have imagined Read the rest of this entry »

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The Notorious Racist Who Inspired America’s National Parks

Posted by Richard Conniff on July 1, 2016

Madison Grant

Madison Grant

by Richard Conniff/Mother Jones

I used to tune out when my father would go on about eminent domain: how his immigrant grandparents had built up a modest homestead with two houses, three grown children, and a flock of chickens on the banks of the Bronx River. And then, around 1913, how the government had seized the property to make way for the Bronx River Parkway. That the episode still rankled after almost a century just seemed like a manifestation of my father’s cranky late-life conservatism.

That was before I found out about Madison Grant.

It’s a name you should be hearing a lot this year because of the centennial of the National Park Service—in many ways a product of Grant’s pioneering work as the greatest conservationist who ever lived, according to one early Park Service director, and a creator of “the park concept,” in the words of another. But you probably won’t hear Grant’s name so much as whispered, because his peculiar line of thinking also helped lay the groundwork for the death camps of Nazi Germany.

Born in 1865, Grant enjoyed a blue-blood Manhattan childhood thanks to his mother’s family wealth and his father’s reputation as a doctor and Civil War hero. At 16, he went to Germany for four years of private tutoring before coming back for Yale and then Columbia Law School.

Grant was a handsome, urbane figure with a thick mustache and steady, deep-set eyes and a reputation as a ladies’ man. He set up a Manhattan law office but rarely practiced. Nor did he ever hold Read the rest of this entry »

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Christmas 1940: My Father’s Poem

Posted by Richard Conniff on December 22, 2015

IMG_3049

I found this poem by my father among his papers, after his death.  He had a seriously bad family life then, as a 20-year-old, and everybody also knew this might be the last peacetime Christmas before the U.S. entered World War II. Read it, be thankful for what peace we have, and have a Merry Christmas:

The beeswax lit and the holly hung,

And three kings on their knees;

The ancient hymns and the carols sung,

And snow in the branchy trees.

A whistling wind on the frozen ponds,

The moon on the mantled loam;

The canes on the scented balsam’s fronds:

The wise man turns him home.

                 –James C.G. Conniff, 12/18/40

 

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For T-Day: Save Yourself from the Digital Zombie Apocalypse

Posted by Richard Conniff on November 25, 2015

(Photo: Visions of America/UIG via Getty Images)

(Photo: Visions of America/UIG via Getty Images)

My latest for Takepart:

The other day I was sitting on a porch on the coast of Maine watching as a red-throated loon hunted underwater. I couldn’t see the bird beneath the surface, but the trail of bubbles it left behind let me follow the action. It shot along for a while in one direction, circled, jinked out to one side, then sent the water boiling in a tight little spot. It surfaced momentarily to gobble down its prize, a small fish, then dove again to hunt some more.

I was lucky to be in that place at that time. And even more so not to have my attention monopolized at that moment by an electronic screen. Lucky, because most of the time I am as bad about this as everybody else. My work as a writer means I often spend eight or 10 hours a day at the keyboard of a laptop. I unwind after dinner with a Netflix show and a beer. When I can’t sleep at night, I browse Facebook or Feedly on a tablet. (Yes, I know, looking at a video screen is like firecrackers for sleep. But it doesn’t stop me.) And when I get up in the morning, the first thing I do is check the time and weather on my smartphone.

The Internet doesn’t just offer endless possibilities; it offers endlessly updating possibilities. It is addictive because of the fear that if we don’t look now, we could be missing something big, something important, something viral.

All the while what we are missing is life. We are missing wildlife and the natural world too.

Even worse,

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How Science Education Came to America–The Patriarch Part 1

Posted by Richard Conniff on March 15, 2015

Benjamin Silliman Sr.

Benjamin Silliman Sr.

Undergraduates at Yale are associated with a single residential college for their entire four years, and when I was a student, my college was named Silliman College.  It was my home.  I was, yes, a Sillimander.  But the name Silliman was just a name to me, another one of those obscurely eminent names from Yale’s past. 

For the past year, though, I have been working on a new book (working title: House of Lost Worlds) about how the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History changed our world. And in the course of my research, I learned that Silliman–Benjamin Silliman Sr.–was a far more important figure in American history, and the history of American science, than I had imagined.  Here’s the story:

On October 26, 1802, a 23-year-old Yale-educated lawyer boarded a stagecoach in New Haven for the long, dusty, motion sickness–inducing trip to Philadelphia. Under his arm, he carried a wooden candle box full of mineral specimens to be properly identified.

They were remnants of a higgledy-piggledy museum of curiosities Yale had maintained for a time but then largely misplaced, not altogether regrettably. The original collection had included a 50-pound set of moose antlers, a nine-foot-long wooden chain carved from a stick by a blind man, and a two-headed calf. It also included miscellaneous unlabeled mineral specimens. The candle box in which Benjamin Silliman carried these specimens to Philadelphia would enter Yale legend as the beginning of proper scientific collecting at Yale. More than that, it was the beginning of the collections that would later become the Peabody Museum of Natural History, and the beginning of Yale’s rise from a college to a university.

The polymath Thomas Jefferson was in the White House, yet for most Americans then, science was still a foreign enterprise, somewhat nervously regarded. There were signs of growing interest in this strange idea of knowing the world not just by faith but by experiments, expeditions, and observation. But many considered it Read the rest of this entry »

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The Teacher, Preacher, P.R. Man of Science–The Patriarch Part 2

Posted by Richard Conniff on March 15, 2015

Continued from “How Science Education Came to America”:

His Eminence

His Eminence

Benjamin Silliman would become a great name. He was “the Patriarch” of American science, according to Louis Agassiz, the Swiss biologist who would take up the mantle of science education at Harvard in 1847. But Silliman would do so without making any great discoveries, without introducing any bold new concepts or systems, and without ever fitting the stereotype of the scientist as solitary brooding genius. On the contrary. What American science needed then was “an organizer, a promoter, a teacher, a preacher, a public relations man, a communicator and coordinator, and an exemplar of professionalism,” science historian Robert Bruce has written. “Silliman was all of these.”

He was a charismatic figure, with a clear and forceful way of speaking and an impressive, even aristocratic physical presence—tall and lean, “erect as a general on parade and with a general’s expression of great power,” as a former student recalled, with a high brow, deep-set eyes, a thin straight nose, and slightly pursed lips—altogether inspiring confidence and even belief in his listeners.

Silliman made it his mission to develop science and science education at Yale, and later nationwide. For this, he also possessed the ineffable trait that Bruce describes as “effectiveness in procuring facilities and supplies.” It wasn’t just that he had a keen eye for new material to embellish the Yale collection; he was also adroit at wheedling funds out of the Yale Corporation to pay for these acquisitions. Much of this effort went in support of mineralogy, a topic early Americans found far more tantalizing than we generally do today. For them, it afforded “a pleasant subject for scientific research,” according to an 1816 account, and also tended “to increase individual wealth” and “to improve and multiply arts and manufactures and thus promote the public good.”

Mineralogy attracted some colorful personalities. Silliman handed over $1,000, a huge sum then, Read the rest of this entry »

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Spreading the Word About Science–The Patriarch Part 3

Posted by Richard Conniff on March 15, 2015

The Weston meteorite.

The Weston meteorite.

Continued from “The Teacher, Preacher, PR Man of Science”:

In the course of their research, Silliman and Kingsley had spent several hours searching fruitlessly for one unusually large stone that had landed in the town of Trumbull (Silliman’s birthplace, as it happened). When it finally turned up, after they’d gone back to New Haven, it weighed 36.5 pounds—and the lucky farmer who found it thought it was worth $500.

An amateur mineral enthusiast, Colonel George Gibbs (the rank was honorific), placed the high bid. He was the heir to a Newport shipping fortune, which he seems to have had no great interest in preserving. Among other acquisitions, he had recently purchased and brought home the extensive mineral collection of a Russian count, and another collection accumulated over 40 years by a great patron of science in France.

Even before the meteorite episode, Silliman’s brother in Newport had tipped him off about Gibbs. Silliman and Gibbs soon met, became friends, and spent time geologizing together around New England. In 1810, when he was considering a suitable place to display his mineral “cabinet,” Gibbs made inquiries at institutions from Boston to Washington, without quite finding what he was hoping for. Finally, he stopped in to visit Silliman in New Haven and announced, “I will open it here in Yale College, if you will fit up rooms for its reception.” Yale promptly did so, on the second floor of what is now Connecticut Hall. And thus, among many other treasures, the 36.5-pound Weston meteorite came to Yale.

Gibbs also provided one other critical boost not just to Yale but to American science at large. Late in 1817, he bumped into Silliman by chance one day aboard the steamboat Fulton, on the ten-hour run between New York and Read the rest of this entry »

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Science & The Rise of the American University–The Patriarch Conclusion

Posted by Richard Conniff on March 15, 2015

James Dwight Dana, 1857

James Dwight Dana, 1857

Continued from “Spreading the Word about Science”:

The line dividing science and theology was, however, still practically nonexistent, and in this somewhat delicate context, James Dwight Dana was undoubtedly the most important of Silliman’s disciples. He was both a deeply religious man and the greatest American geologist of the nineteenth century, and much as Silliman had done for Timothy Dwight, he made it possible to expand the role of science without seeming overly threatening to religion or the humanities. Dana also explicitly took up Silliman’s mission of using the sciences to build Yale into a university.

In 1856, Dana gave a speech to Yale alumni lamenting those “who still look with distrustful eyes on science.” They seem, he said, “to see a monster swelling up before them which they cannot define, and hope may yet fade away as a dissolving mist.” That specter was twofold: the shadow cast by geology on the Genesis account of the Earth’s history, and the idea of evolution, which was already in the air. (Among other developments, a former student of Silliman’s named Thomas Staughton Savage, a missionary, had recently brought home from Africa the bones of an unknown primate with a disturbing resemblance to humans—the gorilla.) But Dana was deeply committed to a biblical view of creation, and he assured his listeners of the evidence provided by geology “that God’s hand, omnipotent and bearing a profusion of bounties, has again and again been outstretched over the earth; that no senseless development principle evolved the beasts of the field out of monads”—that is, unicellular organisms—“and men out of monkeys, but that all can alike claim parentage in the Infinite Author.” (Silliman shared this belief. In one of his last lectures he had declared, “Young men, those people may think as they please but for my part I shall never believe or teach that I am descended from a tadpole!”)

Having dismissed the evolutionary bugaboo, Dana went on to argue for Read the rest of this entry »

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A Butterfly Spreads its Blessings on a Brooklyn Family

Posted by Richard Conniff on February 7, 2015

Eleven-year-old  Skye Rothstein with her black swallowtail butterfly best friend. (Photo: Kirsten Luce for The New York Times

Eleven-year-old Skye Rothstein with her black swallowtail butterfly best friend. (Photo: Kirsten Luce for The New York Times

Nice story in today’s New York Times about a moment of grace in the life of a New York City family:

When Skye Rothstein gazes out her window, she is reminded of winter’s chill and the long, dark nights.

But inside the 11-year-old’s Park Slope home, there are hints of spring with the arrival of a fragile guest that sucks on cotton balls bathed in Gatorade.

For more than two weeks, Skye and her mother, Karla Rothstein, have gently nursed a black swallowtail butterfly that has become the family’s bundle of joy. The butterfly, which was discovered in Skye’s bedroom on Jan. 21, most likely emerged from an overwintering chrysalis hidden in the family’s Christmas tree.

“I went into Skye’s room and saw this slight movement on the floor, which of course in New York you never want to see,” said Ms. Rothstein, an architect and an associate professor at Columbia’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation.

When Skye came home from karate class, she found her mother in her bedroom. “She told me to come over,” Skye said. “And there

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